Que Pena: A Gringa’s Absolutions

As a seasoned European traveler, I have become too comfortable with that foreignness. (A transit strike? Ah, well. Let’s pause for a cappuccino instead…)

Vacations to the Mother Lands are nearly a hundred percent enjoyable, no matter the country, predictable in their quaint unpredictability. But what is a vacation if not a series of surprises, gaffes and mishaps, punctuated by a sigh of relief when you finally crawl into bed at home? Anything less than that means that you haven’t returned with good stories that will become good memories, and memories are the true currency of a worthwhile voyage. I am dangerously close to being able to plan for the unplannable there, having had my share of memorable adventures from the UK across Western Europe.

Don’t get me wrong: I am no sky-diver, bungee-jumper or mad thrill seeker, a life philosophy that seems both boring and pointless in spite of potential death and loss of limb. We’re all going to die anyway, right? Why hasten it? I’m not interested in something extreme for its own sake like I won’t see a movie purely for the special effects. If it hasn’t got a plot, it’s staying at the bottom of my Netflix queue. (Breaking Bad is still kicking your ass, Avatar.)

My hopes for travel are likewise pointed: absorb and get lost in a culture totally apart from my own, which is always thrilling in a way I couldn’t have planned. Bonus points if it involves speaking another language and soul searching. This leaves open many possibilities, something that I had to remind myself in 2012 when I set out across the United States. (Don’t tell me that they speak the same language in Nashville as they do in Boston and Chicago, because they don’t.)

All this to say, going to Colombia in January was very, very good for me. My yardstick for measuring the impact of a vacation has now been amended to personal growth and a treasure trove of memories plus the number of times that I had to relieve fear-pee based on otherwise mundane activities. Colombia, you have stolen my heart and tested my bladder control.

Fittingly, my education began on the cab ride home when Brad explained the bathroom situation, as in, “Gabbi, remember that you’re in a developing nation now, so you can’t flush toilet paper. That’s what the waste basket is for.”

Me (whispering, brow furrowed): “You mean even for number two?”

Balancing the week’s fear-pee with my heroic attempts at hydration to combat the change in altitude (sea level to 8,600 feet in Bogotá, and over 10,000 feet atop Monserrate) I had to catch myself nearly every time, programmed to toss the paper in with the rest. Admittedly, I went fishing occasionally. It’s hard training to break, and at one point, I finally understood –and for the first time ever wished for– a bidet. (I’ll save you the story about the chorizo from Chopinar.)

For breakfast each morning, Brad cooked heavenly arepas and eggs served with plates of luscious alien-fruits studded with slurpy seeds or crunchy seeds or tangy seeds that he noted might reappear again in my daily absolutions. We chuckled over this innuendo then, so proper a term for such an activity, like I’m chuckling now. It makes me realize how being in Colombia reconnected me with bodily functions that most Americans try to ignore. As soon as our kids are capable of holding and disposing of waste by themselves, we don’t discuss our daily absolutions. Yet, in this new paradigm, it was hardly embarrassing when I had to ask Brad for Imodium following the Chorizo Incident.

Daily absolutions aside, I was intrigued by the constant tension between order and chaos all around me in Bogotá. Like Rome or Paris, you have to keep an eye out. Unlike those places, it’s also a city where people are robbed of their mobile phones and slashed across the palm in broad daylight, which happened while I was there. You cannot be complacent, and if you are, the consequences are your own fault.

Brad’s counsel on this was steady: do not make yourself a victim. When Bogotanos hear that someone has fallen to foul play, their first response follows that line. In America, we ask, “What happened to you?” whereas in Bogotá they say, “Oh no… What did you do?” There’s something ironically right about that, as oftentimes we are the cause of our own mischief yet believe that someone else should pay for our bad judgment. Were you twiddling about with your mobile phone at a busy street corner when you ought to know better? Well, what can you expect?

Bogotanos don’t tend to say I’m sorry (lo siento) except on occasions when the grievance is dire. Don’t expect anyone to acknowledge that they’ve run smack dab into you on the street, for instance. Rather, if they say anything at all, listen for que pena (loosely, what a pity for your pain) which places the focus where it should be: on those who are inconvenienced at hearing the injured’s plight. No offense, but if you had stepped out of the way, you wouldn’t have been run into in the first place.

The darker side of this attitude speaks to the low value of life in a fast-moving city where everyone is responsible for her own misfortune. Who should take the blame when one of the famously daredevil taxis hits a pedestrian and flees the scene after breaking his leg, which happened to one of Brad’s friends a few months ago? You leave your house, you accept risk. Pedestrians might as well be pigeons to drivers, whose skirting of catastrophe is as regular as breathing. Crosswalks and lane markings are suggestions, stop signs a mere caution. It would have been my fault, then, if I had gotten injured during one our hair-raising taxi rides because I knew that none of the cars had seat belts, but chose to get in anyway.

Bogotá does this well, keep you on your toes. It makes you confirm your decisions as much as the things you take for granted. There are no “Mind the Gap” signs or “Look Left/Look Right” markings on curbs, if there’s a sidewalk to begin with. Some places are paved with broken brick or concrete, ending in severe grade changes or simply dirt and rubble. Blind pedestrians, you’ve been warned: we’ve installed a tactile strip of uneven bricks for you to guide yourself through the middle of city sidewalks, which are interrupted with telephone poles and bollards, to let you know when you’re coming close to the unexpected foot-and-a-half drop-off blocked by construction fencing. Stay alert. Que pena.

There are other signs, though, that uplift, and by this, I’m referring to the graffiti murals that enliven the entire city. Once you begin to learn the language of the artists, as we did on a graffiti tour, you see stories unraveling everywhere. They tap you on the shoulder in bursts of vibrant colors and familiar figures peeking out from storefront facades, walls, tenement buildings and transit byways. They speak of this tension, hardly a new phenomenon in rugged Bogotá, in ways that give even a cynic some hope, though the murals often bear somber messages and come at the occasional price, including death. The beautiful tension in these works and their history make our public art programs at home seem antiseptic. In Bogotá today, murals are often directly commissioned by business owners to defray property defacement, and it is actually effective. If individual life doesn’t have much value, at least art does. It strikes something chromosomal in everyone, even in those who value little else.

One afternoon, with a few hours to myself, I went in search of a different kind of art at the Botero Museum. Brad had done some pushing-out-of-the-nest on my first day, allowing me to navigate solo from the Museo del Oro to his home in the Chapinero neighborhood while he was in class. The Botero Museum is close to the same starting point, so we both figured that this would be another small victory for me, the Gringa Adventurer. Using Brad’s bus pass, I took the J-72 from our lunch in Zona G to El Centro and got off at the Museo del Oro. I was feeling good. I had learned to boldly step in the direction I was headed, no maps as it leaves a person distracted and vulnerable, no phones as it makes her a victim.

This is how I became very lost in a very bad neighborhood for what felt like a very long time. (Cue the fear-pee.) I picked up a few crazy ladies along the way who followed me, shouting and covered in pigeon shit, through one of the large plazas, and a man who seemed less crazy and more determined to tail me up and down the streets of low-end shops. I passed through hosts of people shoving colored advertisements in my face, who I dodged like beaded curtains from the 70s as they pelted my senses with offers for mobile phones, sex shops and soft drinks. It seemed as if I had found the center of the universe, as the same road converged on itself over and over again — how could I have been at the corner of 11th and 11th not once but twice? Was this even possible?

It was hot enough that my body should have absorbed the fear-pee. In Bogotá, the temperature can be 65 but the intensity of the sun at elevation on the equator makes it much warmer. I stopped in the shade of a pavilion and discreetly tried to orient myself with the map that Brad gave me until a guy pestered me for cash. I asked a guard at the Finance Ministry for directions, but he sent me blocks in the wrong direction. (Que pena… What did you do, Gabbi?) I asked a kind-looking woman who, like Brad’s maid Angela, hadn’t the foggiest idea how to communicate with me, a beginner at Latin American Spanish without a sense for the dialect. I even found the yellow church that Brad had pointed out as a marker, but was completely turned around, as if the streets of Bogotá had become the final Jenga-like movie set of Labyrinth.

After two hours, I wondered if I would ever find my way. Nothing looked familiar, and Brad had drilled it into me never to get into a strange cab that we hadn’t hailed through Tapsi, the local dispatch service. I was screwed. Eventually, I would have to ask one of those abuelitas on the street corners with the 200 MINUTO signs to use her cell phone on a cord to call Brad for help, the Colombian version of a pay phone. At that moment, the stoplight turned red and I stopped short to avoid being taken out by a cab racing through the intersection. It forced me to look up. When I did, I noticed Iglesia de San Francisco, the church across from the Museo del Oro. I knew where I was. I also knew how to get to the TransMilenio bus station where I could grab the M-80 home to Chapinero. The fear-pee took on a new urgency.

When I finally made it to Brad’s apartment, sticky with sweat, pollution and exhaust, it felt good to take my shoes off and sit for a moment. As the spring-like breeze swept the clouds across the mountaintops, Angela bustled in the kitchen saying things I couldn’t understand. For the first time that afternoon, I felt relieved, sighing to myself, Ah, I’m home.

The Hand of Botero

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