On April 22, 2012 we arrived in Bogota from Manizales on our way back to NYC. We had an 8 hour layover and decided that since we were in one of Latin America’s great cities, we should at least try and check it out. The impression of Bogota you get, at least from the airport, is one of a city that is slightly ramshackle with an undercurrent of desperation. Upon arriving, we pulled bags of equipment out of the airport bus and a man in a red uniform loaded them on a cart. He brought us to another guy who firstly tried to convince us to wrap them in blue plastic. The price for this service was 10.00 US a bag. After we declined, he pointed out that the United Airlines counter wouldn’t be checking bags for 3 more hours and offered to store them for a discounted price. The thought of this guy watching over a couple of grand of equipment didn’t excite us and we turned him down. I then asked at the Avianca desk for official airport storage and found that it only cost roughly 4.00 a bag. We were now free to go.
I had asked Roberto, another artist from the festival, of a central point we could tell a cabbie to go and he told us the Plaza Bolivar. The cabbie drove us on the highway into Bogota as the sun was setting. Bogota is surrounded by imposing mountains which give a beauty to the city, especially to an American northeasterner who’s spent his whole life at sea level.
On the way to the Plaza Bolivar we drove through the ‘Tolerance Zone’ a district where prostitution is legal, and the streets were full of women. There is a kind of universality to street hookers whether in Amsterdam, NYC, Sao Paulo or Bogota. You definitely know them when you see them. Obviously the clothes give them away, but it’s also the hardness of their faces.
On dropping us off, the driver pointed out the cops in their green, military-like uniforms and told us that we could always ask them for help if necessary.
The Plaza Bolivar is a vast square with a cathedral on one side and other large, government buildings on the other. There were relatively few people and there were several indigenous looking men who had alpacas that they were allowing tourists to pose with for money.
We decided we’d walk through the streets in the perimeter. Bogota definitely has a far faster pace than Manizales, the speed of the walkers is closer to that of NYC. The ramshackle quality of the airport was evident in these streets, as was the desperation – the street vendors and the indigents.
We passed an art space named after Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I decided that it might be a good place to check out and pull out a map, away from the street. Art spaces in cities are often urban oases and this one was no exception. It was dedicated to photos of writers in their studios at work. There were 3 other people there and I walked up to one of them, a woman writing in her notebook, and asked her if there were any places nearby we could check out since we were from NYC and in town for only 2 hours. She looked at me pretty skeptically, but then said she was walking towards another area and we were free to follow her.
We left the art center and she pointed out the huge library, an art center and the Botero Museum. (Whose work I’ve always loved, unfortunately it was closed). The streets became narrow and hilly. She explained that this was the original area of the city built by the Spanish colonizers. We came across a plaza where there was a crowd gathered around a guy with a guitar. Here was the place of the storytellers she explained.
We walked by a street where people were lined up outside of a door waiting to get in. These were the theaters. Bogota is a center of Latin American theater. She led us in one and I was greeted by a guy in a jester outfit. The show was about to start, but we didn’t have the time to see it so we moved on to another theater.
Upon reaching the next theater, she explained, that it was the Teatro La Candelaria, one of most famous theater companies in Latin America due to the fame of its director Santiago Garcia. Upon entering the theater, which like the other had a Spanish style courtyard within the building, I was taken by her to meet Santiago Garcia himself who was sitting in a chair in a room to the side of the theater. She explained that I was a musician from New York and he allowed me to take his picture.
We continued on down an ancient little street that was medieval in its narrowness. It had begun to rain quite hard with thunder and lighting which apparently is quite common in Bogota at this time of year. The construction of the ancient street made sense. The street stood a good foot beneath the sidewalk and the stores. I imagine with the heavy rains, the street was meant to double as a little canal, channeling the water down the hills. I’ve never seen a street like this in the Western Hemisphere and it had a real beauty to it.
She insisted that we needed a drink of Chicha, the fermented corn drink that belonged to the natives who then introduced it to the Spaniards. We entered a small cafe and grabbed ourselves a room. The Chicha was great, kind of like a corn flavored sparkling cider. It was even served in an old Jack Daniels bottle.
The woman finally told us her name – Lylo and explained that she was a writer, especially of plays. She showed us a book she was reading – it was Ambrose Bierce, one of my favorite writers. We chatted about American authors, gave her a CD and Mike drew her portrait. We then left with her to go find some food.
Lylo said she didn’t trust the street food, which made sense. After trying a few places, we found a place where we could have some arrepas and empanadas. We were continuously approached by ragged looking guys asking for food or money.
While we were eating the arrepas, she told us the story of something she had seen that day: One of the indigentes (the homeless) had fallen and hit his head on the sidewalk. As the blood poured from his head, pigeons gathered around it and drank it. Stories like these, of the city’s faceless and desperate provided the characters in her writing. It reminded me of a couple from a party the night before in Manizales who told me of going to shoot pictures in Bogota’s main cemetery on a Monday, the traditional day of the dead. There the prostitutes gathered and prayed to the statues in order find a man who would help them escape the life that they lived. Bogota is an incredible mix of extreme poverty and suffering alongside natural, architectural and cultural beauty. In a sense a more extreme version of my own city. I really can’t thank Lylo enough for having shown us a glimpse of this place.
We drove back to the airport together in a cab (after avoiding the several indigentes who tried to help us in). We talked about our families and being artists. We said bye in front of the International Terminal and returned to the line for our flight to the US.