Must the Gun Always Fire? (And Other Rules of Writing) was the theme of Friday night’s Hugo House Literary Series installment. Three writers, including the terrifically witty Anthony Doerr of Four Seasons in Rome fame, responded to a prompt fueled by one of Chekov’s famous rules:
One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.
As someone who prizes organization but distrusts rules (the former is mindful, the latter merely obedient) I couldn’t help but think of my time in Colombia last month. There, rules and disorganization actually go hand in hand, for where there is process, there is also evasion. Everyone knows that everyone else appears to abide by the rules while conspiring to best them. Trust between strangers is thin.
While strolling through the secure government zone in El Centro, Brad smiled when I revealed my secret street crime deterrent. Chuckling at my dented silver whistle (Seriously, Brad, you should hear this baby!) he explained that, if I was really in trouble, blowing it was unlikely to summon help from passersby. Bogotanos are not hard-hearted people, but to aid a stranger –especially in the event of a violent attack– opens the possibility of injury to oneself. In Colombia, these are the rules: take care of yourself and your loved ones, as it is unlikely that someone else will. Better to shield yourself than draw the scorch of flames meant for another.
The value of human life is thinner in Colombia; you can sense it walking around. It’s not a cloudy evil or ghost of ill-will, but a hazy inward turn. People avert their eyes equally to flirtation, need or confrontation. The life –or footpath– of another matters little, which is why you’ll get winged at least once a day without apology or acknowledgment that a collision has occurred.
When clipped by a fast-moving Medellina near the Plaza de Cisneros, I shouted, “Ow!” more from surprise than hurt, evoking an almost-sympathetic giggle from someone next to me. Like all injury (Que pena! What did you do?) the fault derived from my lack not hers (I should have avoided her path); when we forget the rules, we receive our just desserts. The woman didn’t flinch at my complaint, not even an eyelash. Colombia’s rules are layered: there are the written and spoken guidelines, and then there are rules that are quietly implied and silently understood. Only after you have broken them, sometimes irreparably, do you learn that they exist.
I arrived aware of many such rules, some of them my own, others hand-me-downs: do not use iPhones or cameras in public, do not flag down taxis on the street, do not wear open-toed shoes in Bogotá, do not carry all of my money or credit cards when going out. Some friends insisted that, if I was being tailed, I should turn around and face the person while others believed the opposite. One person suggested looking into hostage insurance. While walking between Brad’s apartment and a restaurant called Chopinar one night, we traversed a few sketchy blocks and sketchy people who had me running through these rules: Step confidently. Look them in the eye. Or, don’t look them in the eye. One of the two. Keep moving. Stay close to Brad. Should I have bought hostage insurance? If they demand money, I’ll hand it over without a fight. Forget using my whistle.
During my first few days in Bogotá, I was on high alert trying to abide by these and other local codes. Good morning, good day, good evening — the distinction matters. Que pena or perdóne, not lo siento. Con gusto not encantada. One cheek kiss, not two. On the street, I kept a casual but constant scan on my purse and my surroundings, which were constantly abuzz with people and traffic. At the same time, my lungs and brain were adapting to the high elevation, whose thinner concentration of oxygen and abundant pollutants left me wheezing from time to time. Brad and I played language games, me testing Spanish words and him confirming or correcting, as we came upon signs and directions and objects. The whole time, a husky sotto voce whispered: You’re on your own, mija. Stay frosty and alert.
Reading my mind on our way back to the Art Hotel in Medellín, Brad asked what I would do if he disappeared. Would I know how to find my way from Medellín to Bogotá? In Bogotá, how would I get into his apartment? At first, I was irritated – was he toying with me? No, he was checking to see if I was prepared, if I had read the rule book, or if I was relying solely on him. As we walked uphill in the tropical afternoon air, I produced the card with the hotel’s address, and confirmed that I remembered the route back through the Poblado neighborhood. I had cash for the 60,000 peso taxi ride to the Medellín airport. I had our flight number and departure time, and more cash for the Bogotá airport taxi. I had Brad’s address. I had Enrique’s phone number to get Brad’s spare key. The doormen at Brad’s building knew me and would let me inside. The rules meant leaving nothing to chance. They meant knowing the steps one by one that would bring me safely back to Brad’s bower in Chapinero and eventually home. They meant paying acute attention at all times, everywhere.
On journeys like these, when safety is questionable, rules are abundant and oxygen is spare, beauty becomes an important cure-all. It may not be possible to have complete peace of mind, meaning a passive urban existence, on the streets of Medellín or Bogotá, but their beacons of colorful graffiti make a person feel connected and cherished in spite of the chaos. Art is an offering, a means of dialogue about the things in daily life that go unacknowledged: love, war, drugs, poverty, politics, family, history, economics, assault. They are attempts to communicate rather than turn away. Some are memorials meant to call attention to the artists slain while making their art.
Once you know what to look for, you see them all over the city, commissioned works on restaurants or commercial storefronts, splashes of color on freeway walls, lively paintings in alleys, nooks and crannies. The murals are effective deterrents to taggers, proving that beauty is a universal symbol that the vulnerable, human part in each of us is loathe to destroy, no matter what else we put asunder.
Some of Bogotá’s muralists are university professors, a few are women, several work in groups; each artist’s style and message is different. What holds them together is their use of aesthetics to spark a deeper awareness. Their power is evident in your gut when you realize that the playful stenciled silhouette of a boy is not holding balloons but hand grenades with the pins pulled, a nod to children pressed into warfare. A large multi-colored bird bursting into three dimensions makes more sense when you discover it was painted by a woman who was brutally raped, her art a means of rising from a violent past. There’s magic in their colors and meaning in their forms that some could dismiss as mere graffiti, but it’s not. It’s so much more.
When people ask why I liked Bogotá, I point to this spirit: that life goes on there because it must, that beauty happens there because it must, that people climb to the top of Monserrate on the pilgrim trail because they must, that street vendors sell mobile phone minutes and sliced fruit to feed their families because they must. Despite Bogotá’s history of violence, political instability, drug wars and corruption, I love the undeniable endurance of its people, impossible to quash.
Maybe it’s the constant current of cool breezes beneath the intense sunshine that feeds Bogotá’s undercurrent of optimism. The very movement of the air suggests that things are in motion, always changing, that the Bogotá you know today will retain a sense of itself as it evolves into something different tomorrow and the day after that. It’s a city whose change bears watching.
Maybe I enjoyed Bogotá because I’ve always been drawn to juxtaposition, because I see beauty in hard places. I loved watching couples speed by on bicycles when Carrera 7 was closed to traffic for Ciclovía, the same street that Brad and I played pedestrian Frogger on near his house, dodging fast-moving vehicles across six lanes. I loved choking on exhaust-polluted air on one street and entering a sky-high fresh fruit and vegetable market on the next. I loved the gritty parks that were busy with lunching uniformed workers by day and flocks of men on their way to neon-lit gay bars at night.
Maybe I loved being surrounded by chance. I secretly thrilled at riding the unofficial busses, knowing that they would take off while we were still stepping inside, the door open precariously behind us as the driver’s wife took our money before we moved through the turnstile, trying not to fall as the bus tumbled over potholes and screeched to a halt at red lights. I loved hanging onto the ceiling-mounted panic bars in taxis as they swerved in and out of traffic, gritting my teeth and feeling naked without a seatbelt as we sped through the city. I loved the thudding fear in my chest as we swung from gondola cables and funicular wires, facing the deep trepidations I avoid easily at home.
Mine are not new feelings about Bogotá. Brad’s wonderfully charming friends shared an equal number of stories about loving and struggling with life in this circus of a city. Navigating its rules –socially, politically, economically and interpersonally– takes stamina not required in other places. To live in Bogotá requires a strong constitution and the ability to find beauty in its choppy sidewalks even after taking a tumble. There’s a lesson available in every experience; chances are you’ll lean on that knowledge again and often — or pay the price.
Bogotá made good use of my street smarts, but I was fortunate, too – nothing bad happened that left a mark, like a car accident, a broken cable, a mugging, a palm sliced open by a dagger. A swirling eddy of fortune and fortitude are as endemic to life in Colombia as its system of rules. This is why, after absorbing everyone’s advice, I left Bogotá with a single tenet of my own –a loaded rifle on the stage that, by Chekov’s rule, I must eventually fire– and that is to return some day.