Pico Iyer Journeys

Among the Mist-Wreathed Mountains

Where the volunteers at a literary festival in Los Angeles are nearly all perky grandmothers and the occasional retired man, the ones at the El Malpensante Festival in Bogota (run by the local magazine that calls itself the equivalent of “The Contrarian”) are young, largely female, college kids wearing “Very Spicy” t-shirts, in honour of the magazine’s motto, and handing out cans of Red Bull energy drink. Paul Ricoeur, Robert Hughes, Ishiguro are spoken of as if they were rock stars.

For most of us, Columbia, if it means anything, means a 60 year-old guerrilla insurgency, paramilitaries killing the leftists when the military aren’t doing the same, narco-traficantes with their “pre-paid” women and, very occasionally, the waking dreams of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s global unglobalized village, Macondo. The cities of Cali and Medellin are seldom mentioned without the word “cartel” attached, and the leftists of FARC still hold 700 hostages, despite the dramatic rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others last July. But Bogota, an Englishman who’s lived there for eighteen years told me, is in fact a stronghold of U.S.-friendly democracy, the oldest democracy in Latin America, even as the rest of the continent lurches towards the left. “We’re defended here,” he tells me, asserting that the media’s Colombia belongs to a different planet. “Sheltered by the mountains. It’s a fortress city, really. A fortress mentality. People are coming here from Venezuela precisely because it’s such a safe and stable place compared with all its neighbors.”

Those mountains, always wreathed in mist, and casting a lowering, melancholy spell upon the seven or so million below, seem to feature in every conversation. Every day I’ve been in Bogota there’s been rain, and a penetrating chill, even as parts of the outskirts bask under a high mountain light (the city sits at 8500 feet, with the hills jammed up against it rising another seventeen hundred feet or more). Compared with the sunlit, plaza-filled capitals of the rest of Latin America, it feels turned in on itself, haunted and huddled; as I was shivering under several blankets the day of my arrival, a bell-boy offered, “If you need an air-conditioner, I can bring one to you.”

The chill winds, the constant changes in the skies give a texture to Bogota, a weight and withdrawnness that make for very different pleasures from the seaside cities to the north, or from the theater and rock and literature festivals by which it presents itself to the world. It’s a place for visiting the remarkable structure owned by the Banco de la Republica in the quaint colonial Candelaria section, where you can enjoy, with no entrance fee, five separate museums, one showing off gold shamanic relics and pre-Colombian artifacts, one offering Monet and Picasso. It’s a place for watching, with spiked poignancy, the men on ten-foot stilts, the child acrobats and the flame-swallowers who perform for cars at red lights, trying to cadge some pennies from the BMWs heading towards “Gourmet Pizza” stores and an Urban Posh outlet. It’s a place for driving out to the humble 20 de Julio church in the south where guerrillas, children, newly arrived people from the countryside and even a few society folk clap along to guitar-strummed hymns in the rain. A few years ago, one recent university graduate tells me, a survey found that Colombians were the happiest people in the world. “We have guerrillas, we have narcotraficantes, and we are happy,” she declared, leaving it for me to work out how much the furious partying was an attempt to escape, and how much to transform the difficulties all around.

As I climbed a narrow street towards a thicket of tower-blocks rising on the slopes above, my last day in town  (in some parts of the city, the hills are overrun with slums, in others with apartment-buildings), I remembered the young guide who’d explained to me, pleasantly, “The rich all live high-up, in their condoms.”

“Sorry?” I said, taken back perhaps to the Hotel Piccaso of an earlier age.

“Their condoms,” she said. “Apartment-places.”

“Condominiums, I think.”

“Ah yes,” she responded engagingly. “I blush. This tropical woman is now red all over.” In Bogota, however, the confusion seemed emblematic. It’s never clear how much you’re talking about prophylactics, how much about pleasure. Protection may be the city’s most enduring art-form.

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