Last Tuesday saw the launch in Bogotá of Rómulo Bustos Aguirre’s Collected Poems (1988-2013), La pupila incesante. The event was introduced by another fine Colombian poet, Darío Jaramillo Agudelo. Both poets feature in my forthcoming anthology, The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, to be published by Seren in October. Using a language rich in metaphysical allusion and sensual imagery, Rómulo Bustos is a writer of ‘slow’ poetry, inspired by the landscape and themes of his native Caribbean. A professor of literature at the University of Cartagena, he has won the National Poetry Prize from the Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, and the Blas de Otero Prize from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Here is my translation of a poem of Rómulo’s, which was published in the Irish poetry magazine Cyphers, back in December 2014.
Ballad of the House
You will find a house with a strange name that you will attempt in vain to decipher And walls the colour of good dreams But you will not see that colour Nor will you drink the red plum wine that expands memories On the fence a child with a half-open book Ask him the way to the big trees whose fruits are guarded by an animal that sends passers-by to sleep just by looking at them And he will answer while conversing with a green-winged angel (as if it were another child playing at being an angel with wide banana leaves stuck to his back) barely moving his lips in a gentle spell “the cockerel’s song isn’t blue but a sleepy pink like the first light of day” And you will not understand. And nevertheless you will find an immense hallway that I crossed where the portrait of a lord hangs, shimmering slightly, his heart in his hand And at the back, right at the back, the soul of the house seated in a rocking chair, singing But you will not heed her Because in that instant A distant sound shall crumple the horizon And the child will have finished the last page
Translation by Richard Gwyn
Balada de la casa
Hallarás una casa con un nombre extraño
que intentarás descifrar en vano
Y muros del color de los buenos sueños
Pero tú no verás ese color
Tampoco beberás el vino rojo de los ciruelos
que ensancha los recuerdos
En la verja
un niño con un libro entreabierto
Pregúntale por el camino de los grandes árboles
cuyos frutos guarda un animal
que adormece a los andantes con sólo mirarlos
Y él contestará mientras conversa
con un ángel de alas verdes
(como si fuera otro niño que juega al ángel
y se hubiera colocado anchas hojas de plátano a la espalda)
moviendo apenas los labios en un leve conjuro
“el canto del gallo no es azul sino de un rosa dormido
como el primer claro del día”
Y tú no entenderás. Y sin embargo
hallarás un zaguán que yo recorrí inmenso
donde cuelga el retrato de un señor que resplandece
levemente, con el corazón en la mano
Y al fondo, muy al fondo
el alma de la casa sentada en una mecedora, cantando
Pero tú no la escucharás
Pues, en ese instante
Un sonido lejano ajará el horizonte
Y el niño habrá pasado la última de las páginas
Rómulo Bustos Aguirre (Colombia)
On Tuesday at five I do a reading in the library of the University of Cartagena – whose most famous alumnus was Gabriel García Márquez – and learn from one of the Profs that there is a crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel that appears in the author’s novel Love and Other Demons. The Santa Clara is in the old quarter, not far from the university. After a drink with the Profs I decide to go and investigate. The Santa Clara was once a convent, and has been converted into one of the most luxurious establishments in the city. A tribute to Gabo by Boyd Tonkin puts it thus:
‘The lovely 16th-century convent, once also a hospital, has a crypt. In 1994, by then living again in the city of his youth and his dreams, Garcia Marquez published Of Love and Other Demons. That novel, as much an impassioned evocation of Cartagena as the better-known Love in the Time of Cholera, tells of a young journalist sent in 1949 to the newly excavated site of Santa Clara. He has to investigate the miraculous skeleton of a child marquise, dead 200 years but now exhumed with a 22m “stream of living hair the intense colour of copper”. A mood of febrile gothic menace pervades the tale, although the walled city it conjures up could hardly be more topographically exact . . .’
When I arrive at the Santa Clara, a white-coated lackey, with top hat to match, opens the door for me. I tell him I’ve come to see the famous crypt. He shows me it. Here it is.
The drinks in the Santa Clara are Chelsea prices. But the bar is vast and cool, so I sit there for a while and soak in the wealth. When I leave, I pass other, smaller, boutique hotels and very chic eateries with exotic names. I walk past a group of six young English tourists – three of each gender – who resemble the cast of, well, Made in Chelsea. ‘Oh don’t let’s do the walking game, Fiona,’ says a boy with a kiss curl. He wants to sit down. Fiona wants to go on, see if they can find somewhere more to her liking. I wander down the street a while, marvelling at the extent this part of town has been gentrified. I return past the group. They have sat down. The boy with the kiss curl has got his way.
When I wander into Getsemaní, the difference is striking. There is much more shit in the street. More dogs too. The square at La Santisima Trinidad is packed with a different sort of company: Colombians – both locals and tourists – and budget backpackers. Perhaps a few middle aged men, like me, with nostalgie de la boue.
On the southwest corner of the Plaza a man sits outside a bar. A discreet bar, I might add, which looks kind of empty. I’ve seen the man sitting here before. I couldn’t help but notice him. He bears a keen resemblance to Leonardo di Caprio. He sits outside in an armchair, pulling on a fat cigar. At his feet lies a British Bulldog. The dog looks like he might fancy a cigar as well.
We nod a greeting to each other the second time I pass. The third time I stop and speak to him.
‘Are you the owner, or do you just look like it?’
He smiles. ‘I am the owner, yes.’ He is of medium build, blonde hair with a side parting, friendly face, perhaps too innocent looking for this game, but I might be mistaken. He stands up to shake my hand.
‘Hi, I’m Nicholas. Pleased to meet you.’ The accent is very slight, Nordic, possibly German, but possibly Swedish.
‘Richard. And who is your friend?’ I gesture down at the pooch.
‘Ha ha. He is my partner. His name is Socio. Which in Spanish means partner.’
‘How old is he?’
‘How does he handle the heat?’
‘He does OK.’
I want to ask what the local strays make of Socio, but it’s too early for that.
‘Looks like a nice bar,’ I say. ‘Thanks,’ he says. I peer inside. There are three tourist on stools at the bar. I’ve been past here half a dozen times and it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone inside.
‘I’ll come and have a drink, but need to get some food first.’
‘Ah, we do food normally, but with this electricity cut, it’s not possible.’
‘That’s okay. I’ll see you later’
I go to eat at Trattoria di Silvio, at a table on the pavement across the narrow street, fifty metres up from the square. I have just finished my pizza when the second electricity cut of the evening strikes. You can’t see much at all. I have a candle at my table. The three Portuguese at the next table do not and are still eating so I pass them my candle. A few minutes later the waitress brings me another. Nicholas walks past with Socio. I wave at him and he calls back a valediction. I guess the second power failure has proved too much for him. Pity. I would have liked to have heard his story.
Like the other up-market bar across the square, his business is unlikely to fare well while the shop next door sells beer for 2,000 pesos (60p) and half bottles of rum or aguardiente for a couple of quid apiece. But if, as seems likely, Getsemaní eventually becomes more gentrified, following the lead of the historic centre, Nicholas will be in business. At the moment that seems a long way off.
I sit on the edge of the square and soak in the spirit of the place. The smell of marihuana sits heavy on the air. I will be leaving Cartagena in the morning. Three old aguardiente drinkers sit to my right. The black one has two teeth, perched at opposite corners of his mouth. He laughs wheezily and without cease, and on one occasion bursts into raucous song, which his two companions applaud ecstatically. The thinnest one – they are all three skin and bone, but this one is so thin he could snap – is shaped like a question mark and drags his foot when he moves, in the manner of someone with terminal liver disease. He calls out every few minutes for música música, looking around the square desperately to see whether his plea will be heeded in some quarter; and the third, the most desperate of these three musketeers, is too far gone to do anything but gurn like a cretin at the world passing by – if indeed he can see it. The three eventually stagger off into the night, moving with extreme difficulty, as though struggling against the tide of life, towards a sea of oblivion. I have a sudden vision of Macbeth’s three witches, and imagine the crones reincarnated as these three Caribbean drunks, wrecked beyond pity or purpose.
Tuesday 4.30 a.m. William is outside the hotel with the pick-up truck for the return journey to Cartagena. This time I get to sit in the front. I must have earned the privilege somehow, or else he is feeling guilty about the Sunday lunch invitation. Rumblings of approaching thunder.
We are barely out of Mompox when the storm hits us with apocalyptic intensity, the rain crashing down like stair rods. We edge forward along the mud road, which has become a slow-moving river. Visibility is down to a few metres. At one point, an hour out of Mompox, the rain has not diminished. It is still dark, and I glimpse a cyclist, dressed only in a vest and pants, utterly stuck in the mud, drenched, balanced immobile on his bike.
When we hit the ferry at Santa Ana de la Magdalena, we are escorted down the slippery approach by a man clad in a bin liner. Around 6.30 daylight filters through and the rain begins to ease. We hit a covered road and begin to make progress. Casualties of the storm begin to appear along the roadside: mainly dogs that have been hit by cars driving blind through the storm. I count six dead dogs on the return trip. A (live) dog is tearing at one of the canine corpses, pulling at a leg, as if dismembering a chicken. A disturbing image. Dog eat dog. Further on, vultures are feasting on another. The body of a donkey on the verge comes as a vision from Chagall: how did they hit that? Where is the owner? There is plenty of other random roadkill, unidentified, and whenever our truck approaches the vultures scatter. The weather has cleared up and we look set for another warm day. At our breakfast stop, a parakeet hops onto the railing by my table, stares at me intently and then wolf-whistles loudly. It continues to stare at me while I finish my coffee, and when I get up to leave, it flies off.
Just after eleven we descend into Cartagena, as another rainstorm hits from the Caribbean. William drops me off at my hotel, the aptly named Casa Relax. It rains for two hours and the streets are flooded. When I emerge to try and find some lunch, the sun is finally attempting a breakthrough.
As I set off down the street toward the Plaza, someone calls out ‘Oyé, Blanco’. I wonder how they can possibly know my name, and then I register this a regular form of address for a white man. A street vendor is beckoning me over: ‘Hey, Whitey!’ In similar fashion, black men are addressed as ‘Negro’ in a friendly, inoffensive way that would be unthinkable at home – although not, I guess, in the U.S. portrayed in The Wire and elsewhere – but then strictly black on black, whereas in Colombia white and black call each other ‘negro’ and ‘blanco’ indiscriminately. I recall that the footballer Luis Suárez referred to this familiar usage of ‘Negro’ as a defence when accused of using racist language against Patrice Evra in October 2011. His claim that this was a normal and friendly form of address was rejected by the FA enquiry, because it was not delivered in a friendly or familiar manner.
Saturday evening in Mompox. I bump into our driver, William, and he invites me to come for a bite to eat with some members of his family. We sit out in the Plaza next to the church of Santo Domingo. William’s brother-in-law, Carlos, finds it extremely amusing that the family is seated around a table with a foreigner, and occasionally leans over in an attempt to speak a word or two of pidgin English. I have no idea why he does this. I speak perfectly good Spanish. But there is a certain type of individual who finds foreigners inherently funny (perhaps to deflect from the fact that he finds them threatening) and it comes as no surprise to discover he is a member of the Colombian police. A rather junior member, I would hope, but you can never tell.
We eat several plates of meat and potatoes – a variety of potato with a thick fibrous taste, which William tells me is called papa yucca. It is accompanied by Aguila light, a practically alcohol-free beer. Although Colombians like to drink, like the Russians they do not really consider beer to be a form of alcohol. The favourite tipple of Carlos and William – indeed of Colombians in general – is aguardiente, an aniseed based firewater. When, after supper, we retire to the discoteca – a forlorn establishment, in which couples of a certain age dance in each other’s arms – William and Carlos put away a bottle of aguardiente between them within an hour. At the end of the evening William refuses to let me walk home – although we are only three blocks from my hotel – and we hail a mototaxi – basically a motorbike with a small bench for two passengers attached, and six of us pile on. This is quite illegal, but we have the police with us, so I guess it’s all right.
When we get to my hotel Carlos leaps out and hammers on the thick wooden door with the iron knocker, invoking all the authority of the law. William has invited me to lunch with the extended family (and parents-in-law) after mass the next day. I say I would be happy to come but will skip mass. Whether for this reason or another (Carlos’ suspicions that I may be an intellectual and therefore probably a leftist – or the fact that while in Cartagena I was staying in the comparatively disreputable barrio of Getsemaní rather than the historic centre) I do not know, but William doesn’t come to pick me up at the arranged time (I later find out he had to make an unscheduled chauffering trip to Cartagena at midday). It would have been nice, but I think I garnered enough of the conservative, Catholic agenda to have predicted the course of the lunchtime conversation.
First and foremost on this agenda is an unshakeable faith: churches in Colombia are packed and religious paraphernalia everywhere. William crosses himself every time he passes a church, and at random other moments while driving his truck. Secondly, and not surprisingly given the country’s recent past, a deep hostility to both drugs and drug users. In a certain sense, the drug trade and all who sail in it are seen by the Catholic right as responsible for the multiple woes that Colombia has suffered. The following evening, sitting in the park, I am approached by a young dreadlocked type who taps me for a few coins. I give him a few pesos – the equivalent, literally, of around 20 p – and he goes off happy. Two drunks sitting nearby, sharing a bottle of aguardiente tell me off, explaining that the boy will spend it on la droga. This incenses them. They wave the bottle around in their rage at the very thought, and they are clearly oblivious to any inconsistency between their attitude to drugs and their own benighted state. But it has always been this way: the ‘legal’ drug of the Christian West somehow fuels people with moral indignation about other intoxicating substances. With Islam it’s the other way round.
On Sunday I try to arrange a boat trip up the Magdalena. The banks are thick with wildlife – especially birds. I know very little about birds, but it seems a shame to be on the river and not take the opportunity to explore a little. A young entrepreneur, Lazaro, offers to find a boat for me. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a mobile phone, and has to borrow mine to speak to his contacts. This seems like a poor start, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. He tells me to meet him at 3 pm in the Plaza de la Concepión. He finds me having lunch at the nearby Comedor Costeño and waits for me to finish. He borrows my phone to speak to his contact again, and the price I was promised this morning – 25,000 for three hours on the river – has gone up to 35,000 – he hands me the phone to speak to the boat owner just to prove he is not making it up. We stop a mototaxi and set off for the outskirts of town, downriver. When we get there, there is no boat. Lazaro, a little frantic now, borrows my mobile again. He furrows his brow. I can tell this is not going to be good news. The boat trip is off: the other two passengers that were lined up have postponed until tomorrow. I have a friend, begins Lazaro, with a boat, good price . . .
I have given up, lost all interest, but we have to return to town anyway, so off we go in the same mototaxi. When we get to the Plaza San Francisco, Lazaro strides to the bank and yells across the river to a single farm building on the other side. Miraculously, a couple of minutes later I see a man come to the shore. He is accompanied by a man in a red shirt and a young girl of around ten. After considerable discussion between the two men, they unrope the launch – little more than a canoe with a small outboard attached, and cross the river. We fix a price, a quarter of which goes to Lazaro, who then departs, happy. I am not sorry to seem him go.
Pedro, the boat owner, introduces himself. He is courteous and sober. His companion, Edgar, seems exceedingly dim, until I realise that his exaggeratedly slow speech and movements are due to the fact that he is completely off his face. The girl sits on the prow at first, but is deposited on the far bank before we set off, first down river, then upriver. Pedro is fairly astute and good at pointing out animals and birds. Edgar is completely vacant, occasionally turning to me and asking if I speak Spanish, and when I reply in the affirmative saying no more but simply nodding to himself sadly. He even ventures to ask me where I am from, and when I tell him he clearly has no idea what on earth Wales is, and I can’t be bothered with an explanation – so he again nods to himself sadly, perched precariously on the edge of the launch, a position he maintain majestically throughout the trip. There are no further attempts at conversation, except when Pedro calls out the name of an animal or bird and Edgar waves his arms frantically in the requisite direction, of which the only effect is to scare the creatures away. The biggest thrill comes with the iguanas, which I cannot see at first – they are so well disguised – and Edgar rouses himself from his moribund state to gesture frantically at the river bank. Unfortunately there is a lot of riverbank, and by the time I have got the iguana in focus, it moves. Same thing happens the second time. Fortunately I am luckier the third time.
That evening, my last in Mompox, I wander around the town. I can pick up something of the mystery of the place, especially along the old riverside buildings, which once served as warehouses and workshops. Some of them look as though they are being turned into bars, but haven’t quite opened. My unhelpful guidebook tells me the ‘zona rosa’ is a pleasant place to take a nightcap, but I can neither agree not disagree, because it doesn’t seem to exist. However I have a flavour, I think, both of what Mompox once was, and what it might become if tourism gets a firmer toehold. Certainly there were properties for sale that could well appeal to a certain kind of nostalgic and world-weary European or North American with an urge to sink into timeless reverie on the banks of the Magdalena.
Travel is often a matter of balancing a desire for control and a willingness to abandon that control when it serves no purpose. If one finds oneself in a place where timetables and commitments are loosely treated and made on the spur of the moment without too much forethought – well-meant but never likely, in reality, to materialise – and you find yourself fighting this attitude as though it were an aberration, then you are in trouble. If, when travelling you are always trying to be in control of the uncontrollable – especially in a country like Colombia that resists any kind of ulterior control – then you are doomed to misery and failure.
I tried for a couple of days to find the best way to travel to the old colonial town of Mompox -also known as Mompós (population 30,000). It is to be found 249 km up the Magdalena river from Cartagena, and was founded in 1540 by Don Alonso de Heredia, whose elder brother settled Cartagena. An absence of functioning travel agents, as well as the complications of getting reliable information together contributed to a delay in my arrangements. I knew that there was a daily bus service from Cartagena that took eight hours, but did not wish to lose so much of the day. Alternatively I could take a colectivo to an intermediary town five hours south, catch a taxi to a riverside settlement and then a launch upriver for the remainder of the journey –which would again take up most of a day: two days, there and back. In the end, by chance, I came across the Toto Express, run by the eponymous Toto, who organises a pick-up truck for four or five passengers, and who asked me to be ready at 4.30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The truck takes an hour or so to pick up passengers, and arrives in Mompox at 11.00. – in theory at least.
My companions on the trip were William, the driver, and three Colombian ladies, Momposinas on their way home. They talked more or less incessantly, so I was able to catch a flavour of the town they came from. The señora in front was very concerned about William’s driving, although I thought he was rather good, considering the hazards of the journey, and the tendency of other drivers to drive on the wrong side of the road because of the caked mud trenches and potholes (although much of the route is covered, there are long stretches of mud track to negotiate).
At one point we are taking a number of curves on a particularly poor stretch of road, with a lot of traffic. We are stuck behind a lorry. A car passes us at speed, and William edges out carefully to see if it is safe for us to go also. ‘Such imprudence’, says the señora in front, speaking with extraordinary formality. ‘And for what? Just to get ahead! I would rather be wise than imprudent, wait for an opportune moment to pass, and thus keep my life.’ A chorus of agreement from the two señoras in the back with me. William appears to take this personally and turns up the Ranchera music so loud the ladies cannot hear each other speak. The music is pretty awful, but his feelings have been hurt already, so I don’t complain. William then takes what he claims is a shortcut and we encounter a lorry stuck in the mud, completely blocking the narrow uncovered road. We do a three point turn and take the long way around, crossing the River Magdalena by an ancient ferry, consisting of planks attached to three metal boats, and powered by an invisible motor. On the bank a pair of dogs are glued together by their hindquarters, determinedly facing away from each other but unable to move. They appear bored and indignant.
Mompox is a town strongly referenced in the work of Gabriel García Márquez, whom I am currently reading in a pirated – and very badly printed – Spanish edition of Love in the Time of Colera. (It seems obligatory to read García Márquez in Mompox, just as I was compelled to read Lowry in Cuernavaca). Neither this book, nor, apparently, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, are actually based in Mompox (although the latter was partly filmed here) and the settings for Gabo’s fictions tend to be an amalgam of places, real and imagined. If his literary vision is of a certain type of Caribbean town, hopelessly locked into its past, apparently forlorn and yet inherently joyful – such paradoxes are essential to any understanding of Colombian sensibilities, and Colombians are supposedly the second happiest people on earth – then Mompox is as good a place as any to begin to understand the novelist’s sense of habitus. It is a quintessentially Marquesian place, in which the improbable – not to say the fantastic – seem to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. And there are a lot of colourful birds, iguanas and snakes, just to add to the atmosphere.
A random google search came up with ‘the very aristocratic and sorrowful city of Mompox’. The Spanish colonial authorities had the Royal Mint here, supposedly out of reach of the English pirates who made frequent raids on the regional capital, Cartagena. Aristocratic it might well once have been, and sorrowful, at times. It was a site of many confrontations during Colombia’s serial civil wars following independence from Spain. More recently it was a no-go area, changing hands between FARC rebels and government forces over a period of years. Since Colombia’s big clean-up a few years back, it has been – and is being – readied for tourism. But tourism, you might be warned, of a particular kind. It reminds me a little of Greece in the 1970s, in which tourism was taking off, but was still in its fledgling, puppy-love stage. There is the same unawareness of ‘service’ – you often wait until whoever is behind the till/counter to finish what they are doing before they attend to you. This is done entirely without malice: it is simply the pace of life telling you what’s what. There is a lot of smiling and a lot of mutual incomprehension. My question about the wifi in my hotel – which I was assured was available in every room – is answered by a shrug, and when pressed, the explanation: oh, you know, it comes and goes. Foreigners are still a novelty, and therefore quite amusing. My pension is decorated with the kind of bad hippy art that I thought had died in the 1970s.
On the first evening I wander around the cemetery – often a good place to start – and am delighted to find the grave of one Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. You couldn’t make it up. It goes into the catalogue of great names, just pipping that of the Baron Ferdinand Edgar Percival de Frutigen, whose memorial I once encountered in the Pyrenean town of Prats de Mollo.
The Tourist (A) is perturbed by the amount of dissembling he has to indulge in when confronted by awkward situations. He defines awkward situations as those times when he feels he cannot act freely, and is accommodating to someone else’s agenda rather than following his own. This happens, incidentally, much of the time, even when he is alone.
A. meets a fisherman (B) on the beach at La Boquilla. He has gone to La Boquilla for some quiet time, a swim, and to read and possibly settle down with notebook and pencil and do some writing. He is not seeking out distractions even though at some point he will be seeking out some food. And there’s the rub. The restaurant recommended in his guidebook – actually a palm thatch shack – appears to be closed and B. has started his pitch by telling A. he will provide him with a lunch of fresh seafood and rice. Lobster, langoustine, crab.
I am a fisherman. Langoustine, crab, fresh fish. All fresh. I dive for lobster. B. has decided to speak in Pidgin Spanish, perhaps because he thinks that A. might understand him more easily. In this respect, B. believes that tourists resemble children and animals, and should be spoken to with care.
B. also tells A. he has a canoe and that he can take A. for a ride through the mangrove swamps, the very same mangrove swamps, A. knows, that were used in the filming of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez. I take you in my canoe, says B., and you look at the birds.
A. also knows from the guidebook – or thinks he might know, as the guidebook has already coughed up several inaccuracies – that these particular mangrove swamps are home to, amongst other birds, Wilson’s plover, red-knot, gull-billed and large-billed terns, grey kingbird, lesser kiskadee, cattle tyrant, Wilson’s phalarope, collared plover, semi-palmated sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, semi-palmated plover, black, least and brown-throated parakeet, Louisiana and little blue herons, reddish egret and ringed kingfisher.
Although ornithology is not B’s strength, he feels he should offer some examples. Seagulls, he suggests, and falters. Storks. He’s making an effort, but A. guesses B. doesn’t know or care much about the birds. After all, as a fisherman (if indeed he is a fisherman) they are his direct competitors. But B. does know that other tourists come to see the birds, so why shouldn’t this one.
A. does not see any other tourists, however, and this is a little worrying. He feels like the only tourist in Colombia. No, no, says B. Many tourists here. Italy, Spain, Gringos. He points to a half-built house back from the beach. This house people of Italy, people of Spain.
At this point they are standing by a group of eight or nine dilapidated wooden canoes. Three of them are waterlogged, and half-submerged in the swamp. The others look suspect. A. is thinking: I’ve known this man for three minutes and he wants me to get into an antique wreck with him and paddle into the mangrove swamps, alone. A. isn’t overly concerned about the possible dangers of this. The guidebook states that local fishermen offer canoe trips through the mangroves and this man seems safe (though you can never tell), and besides, A. feels (perhaps foolishly) that he can look after himself. No: A’s problem is that he knows, if he sets off in a canoe with B., he will be insanely bored, and more than a little uncomfortable at having to make light conversation while being paddled through the swamp.
All of these canoes are mine, B. lies. All of them. You choose. Half an hour. You look at birds. I paddle. I give you good price.
A. decides it is time to speak out.
B., he says, using the fisherman’s name to assert his authority and intention. I do not want to get into a canoe with you. I do not want to get into a canoe with anyone, however agreeable the mangrove swamp. Nor do I wish to watch the birds, however gracious they may be. I simply wish to take a walk along the beach and later, when I return, I will eat the food that you have promised to cook in your restaurant.
B. thinks about this, brightening.
But, he says, you cannot walk down there (nodding away from the thatched huts).
How is it dangerous?
The water. Down that way the water is dangerous. And the rocks. This way (gesturing back towards the thatched huts) this way is not dangerous.
B. can scent victory. He points at a couple of canvas sunshades pitched near the shoreline. These small shelters dot the entire length of the beach. You walk, you rest, you swim, says B. I make you food for two o’clock.
A. looks at the sunshades. The sun is not shining. It is not yet ten thirty and it is overcast but hot. He could sit in a chair under the shade and read and write, which is what he intended to do by coming to the beach. He might swim in the warm surf. B. will have won, but at least A. will probably be left alone, and he will not have to go looking for lunch. Besides, there doesn’t appear to be another restaurant, at least not one that is open.
Which sunshade will you take? asks B.
On my second evening in Cartagena I take a stroll around the old walled city, which despite its colonial style and nostalgic elegance is sadly heading in the same direction as every other tourist destination in the developing world. The old triangular square that contained the slave market for over 200 years is now used by the descendants of those slaves working in the sex trade (female, as far as I could determine but, I have been informed, you can never be sure until the moment of truth). They congregate in little groups and totter around on heels, checking mobile phones sheathed in brightly coloured holders.
But even watching the rituals of the night unfold can be exhausting in this heat, so I head back to my small hotel in Getsemaní, just outside the old walls.
I arrived the day before yesterday and had been in Cartagena for three hours and been through as many changes of shirt. The air was like hot soup, and, once settled in my room, with the air-conditioning finally working, I foolishly left my haven to wade through the soup on a shopping mission. I went to one of the many stalls selling phones and electrical accessories in Getsemaní market to buy batteries. The girl serving me broke into a smile, told me to wait, and went to the back of the shop, returning with half a dozen tissues, gesticulating towards my face. I thanked her nervously. I remember that I was once referred to as a ‘sweaty Welshman’, but that was a scurrilous euphemism and I do not think I perspire more freely than most. But this heat is something else.
And air-conditioning, for all its ecological hazards, is a blessing. Last night I stayed up writing and at 2.30 a.m. stepped out onto the veranda running past my room to be wrapped at once in sweetly florid heat. The flowers and creeping plants had taken over the air, and the streets outside were silent apart from the barking of an insomniac dog.
This is the Caribbean, and there is a more laid-back and open attitude among the locals than one generally finds among the rather dour highlanders in Bogotá. People are immediately welcoming, and this is done in such an entirely guileless way that early suspicions are soon erased. A young man wants to show me where to get a charger for my camera: he leads me down an alley, across a park, into a shopping mall, introduces me to the shopkeeper and then leaves, shaking my hand and wishing me well.
On my first evening, strolling in the old town, I had noticed a strange little window in the side of an old palace. An inscription plate informed me it was at this spot that informers could report the misdeeds of their neighbours to the inquisitors, for this was the Palace of the Inquisition. So, any grudge against the person next door, I imagine – or if one’s cow stops giving milk, for instance – might be twisted into an accusation of witchcraft. The next day I visit the museum that now occupies the Palace. It is a chamber of horrors, peculiarly filtered through rhetoric which claims that the Inquisitors were nicer to people here than they were elsewhere, and that although their methods were not always pleasant, their ultimate intention was a good one: to help heretics make peace with god before meeting with him in person. My guide book tells me that over 800 were executed by the Inquisition between 1776 and 1821. The museum information mitigates this by saying that ‘only five’ heretics were burnt to death and the ‘the Inquisition did not oppress the Indigenous population.’
The commonest accusations were concerned with heresy and specifically, witchcraft. A list of the 33 questions routinely asked in the interrogation of suspect witches hangs on the wall of the museum. Examples include: ‘What animals have you killed or put under a curse and why have you done it? ‘On which children have you cast the spell of the evil eye, and why have you done it?’ ‘Why does the devil strike you blows at night?’ ‘How do you fly through the air at night?’ I am not a lawyer, but I believe that these might be termed leading questions.
Some of the instruments of torture used to extract confessions are also on display. They include the two devices shown below. The first, called in Spanish the Fork of Heresy, prohibited all movement of the head but offered the victim the chance to murmur his or her confession; the second, an invention horribly called the ‘Breast Piercer’, was used on women ‘who had committed heresy, blasphemy, adultery, or other libidinous acts such as provoking abortions, practising erotic magic and other crimes.’
As though to cleanse myself of these horrors, I wander down to the Convent of the good priest San Pedro Claver. For almost forty years, this Jesuit from the Catalan village of Verdú, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes, worked in Cartagena, apparently defending, protecting and nursing newly arrived African slaves in the city. His munificence was legendary, at a time when black people were regarded as little more than beasts of burden by their dealers and owners. Here he is, the great white guardian, a placebo against all the terrors and ignominies of slavery:
The museum that honours him in the old convent reconstructs his modest cell, his living quarters, and houses an exhibition of the most terrible paintings imaginable – so terrible they are fascinating – celebrating his good deeds among the slave population – who are here depicted as almost imbecilic caricatures:
But at least there is a way out. On a wall, apparently unrelated to anything around it, I find the sign ‘Portal de las Animas’: Portal of Souls. Now, where’s the damn switch . . .
I caught sight of this man crossing the Plaza de Bolívar, and from a distance something looked very wrong. He had a strange loping gait, and was clutching a small white ticket in his right hand, and what looked like sheets of parchment in his left. I am sure they were not sheets of parchment, but they could have been, in another story. His eyes were gone, into the lost territories of the crack addict or the madman. I had the sensation that something or someone was speaking to him, and he was attempting to respond, talking aloud, although not shouting, and waving the sheets of parchment as though they had a particular meaning. He seemed accustomed to the fact that people turn away from in the street, and dogs follow him nervously, but no longer paid it any mind. Like many homeless people in Bogotá he lives mainly off the things he finds in refuse bins, eating food that people have thrown away, searching the same street or group of streets again and again in the course of the day, occasionally confronting an intruder on his territory, at which point the two will face off, possibly come to blows, and then one will shuffle off. I saw this happen earlier in a park at the top of Avenida Jímenez, where the San Francisco river once came down from the mountain and is now channelled via a concrete waterway, where it accumulates debris and rubbish and plastic bags, and is left that way. The mountain beyond is nearly always covered in mist. The weather is complicated, and the late afternoon and evening, inexplicably, is colder than the night.
Sometimes the past just won’t leave you alone.
When I lived in London – a long, long time ago – I went to a lot of gigs and occasionally had walk-on roles as a ‘poet’ with bands at insalubrious venues in the punk and immediate post-punk era. My most stellar performance took place alongside The Cure at a gig in Walthamstow. I don’t have a clear memory of the circumstances – in those days most social interactions took place in a frantic haze of amphetamines and alcohol – and so I am unclear now whether the things that I remember are the things that actually took place, or whether some other version of events has taken their place, perhaps a version enacted or modified by the person I refer to as my Other, who has been responsible for many of the things I would rather not remember over the years.
Because I foolishly mentioned it in a blurb when I was short of ideas, the ‘Cure gig’ has become a recurrent incident about which I am required to give an account at various events in different places in the world where, for reasons quite beyond my understanding, I happen to be interviewed by a Cure fan. This morning was possibly the worst example yet.
I was introduced to the sound of ‘Killing an Arab’ pounding over the speakers, in front of over a hundred Colombian schoolchildren, who, I was almost certain, would have no idea who The Cure were, and a few jaded poets of my own generation, who probably did. I was then asked to give an account of what happened that fateful night in 1980 when somebody introduced me to Robert Smith, and I ended up on stage spouting all kinds of drivel dressed up as performance poetry (and was, I seem to recall, asked back by Mr Smith to do another set).
I then have to talk to the kids about How to Be a Writer. I am in the process of delivering my usual reply, of reading a lot and learning to lie with impunity, when it occurs to me that the whole Cure story might just as well be a lie. Did I in fact make this story up? Perhaps it would be easier to claim that I have, and then I wouldn’t need to recount what happened when I can’t really remember. I could just say Sorry guys, that was just a lie. I made it up. Or else I could recount it anyway, on the understanding that what I was saying was not necessarily the truth; that these things happened, but happened to my Other.
However, after the event, these beautifully turned out and well-behaved Colombian school kids, to whom I assumed I was talking of matters as remote as The Magna Carta, turned out to know as much about the British punk scene of the late 1970s as I do (or can remember). Did I know the Sex Pistols? How about The Clash? Was I friends with Johnny Rotten? Johnny, I tell them, makes commercials for a popular brand of butter these days. They seem a little bewildered by this reply.
Which brings me to the post of two days ago: ¿Donde están los otros? ‘Where are the others?’ I have a feeling this graffiti is going to pursue me for the duration of my Colombian trip. And I wonder if there is another wall, in a parallel Bogotá, in which the others have written an identical message, referring of course to the ones who put the graffiti there in the first place, making them the others’ others.
And as I watch the TV after the reading, with its footage of mass shootings in Iraq, I begin to imagine how this question, ‘Where are the others?’ could keep recurring in an infinite series of parallel Bogotás, to the soundtrack of The Cure playing a song with a horribly contemporary title.
Landing at Bogotá must be quite challenging for an airline pilot. The city is on a plane high in the Andes, and both times I’ve landed here we’ve come down with a bump. Lonely Planet online warns its readers: “Bogotá is at 2640 meters, slightly above 8300 feet. Altitude adaptation takes time – the first day or two, take it easy.” By taking it easy, do they mean one should walk more slowly than usual? I will attempt a slow walk up to the shopping centre from my hotel, where I am being hosted by the cultural programme entitled Las Líneas de su Mano – where we will perform our work and discuss translation. But first I must get a cheap phone. As I leave the hotel a bicycle courier crashes his bike into the kerb and falls headfirst over his handlebars. He looks shaken, but claims to be OK. In the phone shop the young man with the complicated haircut takes my passport and photocopies it. When he returns with my purchase order, I have a new name: Richard British Citizen. Since Spanish surnames are composed of two parts: the father’s and the mother’s surnames respectively, I guess they must have thought my dad was called British and my mother, Citizen. It kind of makes sense. As much as anything makes sense. Walking back from the phone shop a youth darts into the traffic without looking, causing a truck to brake and swerve across the road. The weather is cloudy and the air is thin. It rains for ten minutes, then stops. The sun is far away, behind the clouds, beyond the mountain peaks.
Walking back to the hotel I see a piece of graffiti: ¿Donde están los otros? Where are the others? Indeed, where are they? Have they crashed their bikes, or been run over by a truck? Or are they just late in arriving, because they have to walk so very slowly. Just as well we are not in La Paz, whose altitude is over 4,000 metres. People there would walk really slowly, were it not for the fact that there is always a helpful street vendor to hand, selling coca leaves, which, I am assured, help with respiration.
Posting a few pictures as a last offering from my trip to Colombia:
The lettering on the banknote displayed in the wall graffiti suggests that a thousand poor die for each 1000 peso banknote in the idle republic – well, that is one interpretation – and it was displayed in Santo Domingo, once a zone of Medellín riven by incessant gang warfare. Now it is home to a stylish library, designed by the architect Giancarlo Mazzanti and built in 2006-7 with Spanish money (just in time, I guess: there won’t be any more of that coming for a while), which I visited with Jorge and Moya. The people in the library were very friendly and showed us the new theatre. There are lots of places for kids to play intelligent games and read books, but there weren’t actually many kids around, apart from a couple who tried tapping us for money in a playground on the way in.
Below, a solitary canine fan awaits the start of our reading last Saturday morning in the hot and lazy town of Tarso, three hours’ drive from Medellín.
And finally, a photo of the amphitheatre where the main poetry readings took place later the same day. This shot is from the closing recital, where the packed auditorium was composed of over 2,000 listeners of all ages. They sat there in the heat (the readings began at 4 pm) while the poets lurched their way through the marihuana fumes emanating from the audience to read their pomes (sic). I don’t know why, but the applause became louder and louder as the six-hour performance wore on. I’m certain this response had little or no bearing on the quality of the poetry, but it filled my heart with warmth and genuine respect for the Colombian people. After all they’ve been through over the past thirty years, withstanding a poetry recital of such epic proportions surely demands astonishing powers of endurance. I salute them.