Travel drawing in Colombia

A Painting of Principle

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The plane lifted off the tarmac and again I had it in my mind that some hiccup draft or lateral gust would smash into the fuselage with enough latent power to direct the aircraft harsh into the ground or some building, and it would all be over immediately. It would only take a brief furor of invisible wind to turn the flight to smoldering, to burning like the excited embers of a fire log under the onslaught of someone’s blow. Just get it started.

I feel that if I can imagine the most horrible outcome, and recognize my inability to affect it, then I can have some measure of comfort. I don’t need to hear again that more people die in cars. I’d much rather die in a car by my own hand than to share death with all the passengers of some bus or train or plane over which we wield no providential authority.

When we had breached the thin layer of cloud and rose gently above it, I imagined again catastrophe. A burst engine turbine, a crack in the fuselage and pressure dropping, and the concomitant screams and sudden wave of fear spreading like disease through the rows. But I was in an exit row. The flight attendant had made me look into her eyes and say “yes, I understand,” when she asked if I were capable of opening the emergency door. Now with catastrophe I’d pull the latch. As oxygen ignites. It ignites and consumes the cabin. And instead of tearing at my flesh the horror that gushes forth from an unwilling victim of death, I fall. Free and aware of my own chosen end. The screams and thunder of the failed airplane, hushed the swish of air across my ears falling through it. My teeth clenched, mouth open, breathing deeply by flared nostrils, water spitting off tear ducts, and skin on my cheeks flapping like sheets on a blustery day. Free, and in the peaceful fall through otherwise empty space to an end. No pain. Heartbeat. Nothing but an approaching flat of earth; the great Latin land calling me back.

 


 

Filtered light penetrated the thin tent fabric, waking me to morning. I was in Mucuraba. Small town. Andean town. Venezuela. In two weeks I’d be on a rooftop in Colombia with liquor and a coarse sound emerging from my gullet. The troubles of a northern dash quashed in quibbles of a southern bash. That was in two weeks. The plane in two weeks. I was in Venezuela, still. I was trying to hitchhike to Merida.

“It’s refresco.” The little boy blinked.

“Hmm. Thanks. Kids.”

“Should we ask him?” The little boy turned to his stouter companion, a young girl.

“Va a almorzar?” the girl asked. Her teeth were covered in plaque, I had to notice.

I looked at the young boy, the young girl. “I would but I’m in somewhat of a hurry to get to the city.”

“No lunch?”

“No, no thank you, though.”

“Come on Rico!” The pair plodded down the small Mucuraba street. The buildings’ rooftops hung over the sidewalks, and the children screamed and another girl threw a cat into the air, this one clawing the overhang and escaping its tormentor.

The children were gathered outside an opened door. I could make out their stares I even without glasses. I could tell they were looking my way. The door frame was of cracked adobe and it was dark just inside the entry.

Soon the pair returned.

“Our mom wants you to have something,” said the boy. His head was cocked to one side and he was squinting up at me. His tongue picked at between his teeth the tidings of yesterhour. He held out a compact disc.

“For me?”

“Tu, si.”

“It’s for you,” said the girl. “Un regalo de nuestra mama.”

“Bueno,” I said, “Dile gracias de mi parte.”

When they had again run off, their glee giving potent spring to their leaps, I opened the CD case to find a compilation disc of Andean love songs. I found a piece of paper with a woman’s name and number scribbled onto it in purple marker. Their mother. Her name was Mayra Alejandra. The cliche. Sunken chest feeling. Mayra. Mayra, of course, because it had to be. Because it had to be of course. You cannot escape your heart no matter how many rivers and mountain ranges you put between it and its obsession.

Then to the other side of town I walked, passing the young siblings who had found the cat, and were strangling it and tossing it into the air again and again. They smiled at me, and I nodded and held up the CD, tapping it with my other hand.

I found a pick-up truck at the small petrol station not long afterward and hopped into the bed. As we drove back past the childrens’ opened door to leave Mucuraba, the stout young girl came running out. She tossed me a scarf, and I reached out and caught it mid-air.

“Para que no me olvides,” she said. I wouldn’t forget her, anyway. Her mother was Mayra Alejandra, and I wouldn’t forget her any way.

When in two weeks time I came in a car with a sunglasses man who asked please to give him something to remember me by and I gave him my map, I thought of the flight and the distance turned so abruptly from limitless formless future into just a few hours. Flight speeds up time it does not save it. And no one is better for it. Go anywhere in a day. See anyone, anywhere, at any time. We appreciate us less, or the same that we had before the option. Humanity is vainglorious for our technology and we are not made better people by it. We live longer. We are not better. We have more options. We are not better. Better than. The past. Leave it for posterity–they will not be better for it. All that we have and can be happy for we possess innately. If we could slow down to see it.

Medellin two weeks later, that amber night city which for whatever reason seems authentic clad in its realworldliness. I can write there, yessir. Words flow like a river gorge river. I should stay there sometime, methinks. Why do you run from your home? He can’t the world. So he made himself dead. Couldn’t he the pressures of life? Maybe he truly felt them decided he did not want to them. Medellin has violence anyway, a life might be cheap in the right situation. But any way it is exuberant entertainment. Anyway it is later.

This must be the thousandth time I’ve felt the wind in my hair aback a pick-up truck, I thought. The air was cool on my face. This was mountain air, clean air. The coolness affected my whole body in grace and I felt exalted, and when my eyes opened to the world, its majesty was all the more immediate and true. Pico Bolivar obscured in the backdrop by brush strokes of cloud stared me down like the bouncer of scenery, there to decide my worth. There also the immoveable sky, blue hued and haphazard. We skirted a granite promontory and rode the last paved curve round the bend into sight of Merida. The encroaching slopes like cupped hands appeared to scoop up the city, its architectural meniscus clawing uphill in slow unpatterned sprawl. The love-child of Venezuela. Here I would stay and meet the family of Andres, my good friend of the House of No Ends whom I regard highly.

The last rides and the last rides are always Chavistas, if they’re not Radonski truckers taken to misogyny. Cast me into the shrouded coveted cars of his people and I will tell you something honest, but for the unwillingness of his base. I care above all for financial freedom for human rights, for entertainment for art, for God for now. Bill Clinton at the DNC, and we love him so very much. Because of arithmetic. Popular heroes are never beta artists. Heroes have a passion to change life but none to live it.

“Maybe the thing to consider is valuing work. Maybe that’s the big roadblock. It seems that way to me.” I was talking to Andres’ dad, and I had already been in their apartment for several days.

“Yes, yes. Well.” He drew his words like a ceremonial sword, but careful to guard the unsharpened edge and shade the glint of its gilded sheath. “No doubt the free enterprise system is a good creator of things. Creativity. You produce everything. TV, radio, flight, leaps in scientific understanding. You have… Apple.” He took a sip of the coffee and considered it. “Nelly this is very good. It’s very good.”

Andres’ mom turned in the kitchen and over the island smiled at me. “Do you want one?”

“I’ll be fine, thank you.”

“So what was I saying… ah yes! Our system is different. Our parties are vying, and the Radonski supporters are struggling now, but it’s fundamentally different from your country. There are two completely opposing ideological forces, and depending on who is in power, their system will create our future.”

“That in America–excuse me, the United States–our system is tailored to the cultural and historical heritage of the country. Yes, I see.” My hand rubbed my beard not of my volition.

“The yankees export their system and to varying degrees it has worked. All the educated people in poorer countries have traditionally been the more moneyed citizens, and they study out of country, or they see what the leader of the ‘free world’ has and naturally they want it for themselves, or they already have it and they want to protect it. But countries here are not naturally going to come to that system were they completely isolated and cut off at the umbilical from the beginning. Of course everything is already globalized, so it is inescapably a choice between global systems. Well, it turns out that for us there’s another system that is better, and it is socialism. Do you think that if all the poor in all the countries engaged in political discourse that a singular system would be so passively adopted? I don’t. I really don’t.”

William took another sip of his coffee, considered it once more, and looked up at me.

“I miss my boy. I really appreciate meeting you. You know that Venezuela is in elections?”

“How could I not?” Chavez’ face is everywhere. All the time. In or out of elections.

My mind drifted to elections in the States. Obama, Romney. Boring. American politicians’ is a shit rhetoric to which they must conform. Little things destroy entire careers in that world. Shifty remarks. Un-American sentiment. Anything French (Kerry blighting his tongue). This holy discourse of America as the best country in the world, that even the moderates must not eschew despite the two-thirds passportless citizenry! Then the poor: they can talk about making them into the medium-people middle-class, but no one ever talks about quitting poverty altogether. Wouldn’t be good for business.

Do you know why you’re traveling, really? Yes I know, damn you! You think World War III will happen in your lifetime. If I make 40. Glad penniless wandering is for young beasts.

“It’s interesting how people with money to burn continue to pay for things offered free. Maybe paid-for is always better quality.” I said this to Nelly, William’s wife. An auburn hue shown in her hair when she stood near light, a color that seemed apt about her hospitable features. Her eyes showed a special collaboration, their green vibrance verily glad when framed in shy smiling wrinkles.

Smiling she said: “It’s about wanting to mingle with their own class.” She turned to William, who was seated on an aging rubyleathered couch near the doorway. “I was in the mall today with this Chavez T-shirt. O! The looks they gave me. They do not take kindly to Chavistas there.” She turned to me again. “Kel! Did you see the gondola today?”

“I saw it,” I said. “It’s too bad it’s being worked on, I think I might have liked to ride the longest gondola line in the world.”

“Up up up,” she said, sneaking a chip between her lips and chewing smally. “Up to Pico Bolivar. It’s highest peak in the country.” She wiped the salty residue from her mouth and looked from me to William. “But I guess Colombia has bigger mountains.” She said this with a sweeping gesture of dismissal, and William huffed accord.

“Well, let’s eat boys.”

Merida the student town, the Andean retreat for the coasters battled by sunrays and careful nights. Air like emerging from a sauna, like a cork popped and finally the pressure shoots shoots showering froth to free the bottle. Merida the short town high, not unlike Medellin the taller town also high, not far away but for Andes cornicing peaking. Two weeks yet before I’d be there to consider the tarmac.

Merida. Andres was in Argentina. I was with his family, his sister Sara and his parents. Sara was a student like so many in the town, and studied for free. Chavez our comandante makes studying free, Nelly said, and thanks to him our Sara will be a doctor. How much does it cost to study in los States? To be a doctor you study to gain a living wage to pay off the studying to gain a living wage to endlessnessnessness.

In the central plaza fuzzy with trees and tracked by marble lanes, statues like finials to their columns peered everlasting gazes. I sat to draw them. Easier than humans. Blood moving.

There was a man who walked by me once, and then again. He was short, with a butch cut and yellowing dress shirt, walking in heavy flops and bobbing as a buoy in chop. He passed again and I paid him heed. He was muttering under his frown and breath through pursed lips. If it’s lunacy, his seemed a determined lunacy. He would reach one end of the plaza, contemplate it, and then walk heavily once more across to the opposite edge to contemplate and turn in turn. By his fourth pass he had begun to bellow song in a wispy dank tenor.

On the eastern edge of the plaza, two governmental mobile vehicles served subsidized arepas in the morning until noon. I ate here, or at a cheap restaurant that served substantial hamburgers stuffed with potato chips down a side street. I saw the lunatic tenor again the second day, but then he disappeared. I drew the church. I drew the colonnade of city hall, and listened to the stone give echo of the flirtatious couple in the corner. No matter the mountains and rivers.

Drawing of Venezuelan

This is a drawing of a Venezuelan friend, with whose parents I stayed for ten days in Merida.

Merida, Venezuela, Palacio del Gobierno

A sketch of Merida’s Palacio de Gobierno. The government was everywhere, as was the likeness of Chavez.

Travel Sketch of Merida's Cathedral

A travel sketch of Merida’s cathedral, a beautiful example of Venezuelan colonial architecture.

Travel Sketch Merida La Culata

In the mountains of Merida, Venezuela, one comes upon La Culata, a breathtaking valley deeply cut.

 

I slept in Andres’ room, in an absence bed. The wall furbished Beatles and cut-outs. A guitar. There, Lennon, glasses like Joyce. In the closet his clothes, his trinkets and souvenirs from the past. His memories. It’s like that when you sleep in someone else’s bed–it’s very much someone else’s bed.

Andres and his consubstantial father. William’s heart worn on his sleeve. In the living room, out beyond two rooms to the right, Saras and Nellys and Williams, and a bathroom to the left, a computer area to the right and a kitchen to the left, William was sitting with his cuatro, and said to me “Do you know this instrument?”

“I have seen the cuatro,” I said. “In a museum in Caracas.”

William plucked a few strings and strummed a single motion, adjusting the tuning keys.

“I taught Andres to play.”

“He played some classical guitar for us in Lima.” San Pedro. Picchus of flour, blurring seams and shadows. Should I tell William, but probably he already knows.

“He should take the cuatro traveling,” said William. “It is much smaller.” He strummed twice more, the vibrations mingling momentarily in the air. He stilled them. “Look here, you see? The third string is thinner than the fourth. It gives the sound a strong accent… it’s called ritmo pasaje. Listen.”

He strummed, and the song came into the space gradually and gently. Notes, plucking, and strum. Cha, cha cha, cha, Cha, cha cha, cha. I tapped my leg in rhythm, bem… bem bem, bem bem, bem bem, bem bem. When he stopped my face twinged callow, as it will when giddiness I feel at some performance and words are not there or clapping will not suffice.

“Caballo Viejo, it’s called. It’s a Simon Diaz song.”

The callowness gone I said it was lovely.

William swiveled around in his chair to busy himself with the stereo. Click. Soledad Bravo’s Tonadas de ordeo. Venezuelan, he assured me. “You need to know this song,” he said, shy flustered, having thought about it long enough to recall some memory, or some passion. Marioposa lament.

Nelly watched with curiosity as I flipped a piece of toasting bread in the skillet, its middle replaced by an egg seared gold and white. I sensed her hesitation.

“Do you…” she started. “…Maybe let it a little longer. Or turn up the heat.”

“Leave him alone.” William’s voice, a particularly soft somewhat nasal baritone, rang from the living room.

“The inside must be liquid,” I said, poking the middle, like poking a water bed.

“Hmm. Salt?”

“Nelly! Leave him alone.”

“Ok! Ok, ok. Kel, I trust you.”

We ate the eggs in a basket later, and Nelly ate with nods of approval. Another night, a chicken curry. Mostly, though, Nelly cooked, and we ate together; her, William, Sara and I. Full meals, and good. Sectioned meals. Probably healthy.

“You know,” I said to Sara, “I’ve never seen so many people with braces.”

She didn’t blush. She had braces, but she was a performer, a dancer, untempted by the comment. “It’s because they’re free.”

“Free?” I asked.

“El comandante!” Nelly said proudly.

“So it’s free?”

“It’s free, yes.”

“Everything medical, dental, eyewear too.”

I looked at William through struggling lenses. “Eyeglasses?”

He patted a napkin to his mouth. “We knew some Argentinian travelers that had their eye exams here, and they bought new glasses.”

“So it’s not just for Venezuelans?”

“For anyone. It might be happening here, but the Revolution is an idea for the world.”

The Revolucion Bolivarana, Chavez’ revolution. Venezuela’s. I’d only recently learned about Venezuela’s revolution. I knew mostly Chavistas. Chavistas mostly. Now Chavez is in Cuba after surgery but then he wasn’t. It was elections. There’s no one else to propagate the revolution, no one young and healthy and popular enough. A revolution is shaky when it’s devoted to its revolutionary. I sipped on the Solera Verde beer. Sara said it was far better than Polar Light, and she was right.

William and Sara and I, one day when Nelly was working, drove up into the valley, La Culata, to peer back down over the humps and rumps fields into endlessness blocked by mountains. A farmhouse here. There the lattice of a cell tower. Everywhere green ground and freckled gray sky. I made many drawings of Merida and its surrounds. I enjoyed the fresh air, the calm, the bleating sheep, here and there a perkytailed goat. Thousands, millions of places there are to stand and see out into whatever distance for the pumping of the chest, and some atone, some withdraw into themselves, some wear tears and some turn the day an uplifted gait.

Wake in Colombian Pamplona, to dogs and woman’s gifted peaches. Like Merida a student town, smaller, whiter walls and cobbly streets. The bowl is steeper, and the walk up and out steeper. Walk heel to toe outside the rubber worn. Worn not warm. Quietest at night, in the tent, or at early hours rapturous dawn walking up, up, up. Rapturous heart fore and aft, never alone never long alone.

Andres was gone from Merida but his sister was near to his age. She was turning 20, and so after a quick dinner and conspiring with William, I was told we had to go out then. The short narrow streets had me lost for a moment when we were underway. The restaurant we found within all the friends near Charlie Chaplin. There was cake and celebration. Yes, yes Andres is my friend, yes, I wish he were too, and, and, but of course his family is wonderful, yesterday we saw La Culata. You are?

“I’m Stefany.”

“Do you know Andres?”

Stafany giggled full luxe of beaming pearly whites. Of course she knew my friend my devilish young misfit her friend. “Andres I don’t know him very well, we only got to know each other a few months before he left. When’s he coming back?”

“He won’t come back to his poor mother,” said Nelly. She turned to me. “You don’t know what you’re doing to your mother.”

“Well,” I started with upturned eyebrows.

“Stafany, you should spend a day with Kel.”

Stafany giggled.

“Are you also from Merida?” I asked.

“I’m from Valencia. I study art here.”

Art! And only in the days when I’d return to the land of the free and of the speed enforced by aircraft would I even begin to consider this: art. Art. Philosophy, psychology, science, history, anatomy. Do it how you must, but do not forsake your art. No motive is too low for art, says Gardner.

“To speak of these things and to try to understand their nature and, having understood it, to try slowly and humbly and constantly to express, to press out again, from the gross earth or what it brings forth, from sound and shape and colour which are the prison gates of our soul, an image of the beauty we have come to understand–that is art.”

– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

“What art are you studying?” I asked Stefany.

“The visual arts,” she said, showing her ivories clean.

I said that I drew, traveling. You travel a lot? she asked. Yes, I said. And I elaborated. I became exuberant, but only travel gets the exuberance. My father says I should write to publications. But it would always be about the damn hitchhiking. No, I do hitchhike. I just. Wait. I just, damn the method. The land of the free, home; to gallons, to sports bars, to white eggshells and toilet seats– there’s a TV show for everything, and even about hitchhiking.

“People want entertainment,” I said. “Art suffers from popular art. You want to make a living as an artist?”

“Well I’d like to–” giggle “–I love to paint.”

“Good. If you want to be a painter, paint. That is the best advice.” Someone said something opposite our end of the table, uproar of palpitating breathing: laugh. “If only art was as popular as business or science.”

“Or sports,” added Stefany.

“Or sports,” I echoed. “Just remember that all artists are full of shit, just like everyone else.”

Our party migrated across town, I in the back seat of a car with Stefany, a couple of Andres’ friends driving. They laughed when I suggested McDonald’s. We were looking for a party. The classy club was bulging at the seams with bodies, so it was to another, humbler establishment that our merriment would find expression. Bouncers. Their bounce rate, the exit rate, like the virtual visitors. Two bouncers bearing broad bristling biceps to bring bilateral boom over the bleeding bloody banter of bullocksing buffoons. We were in.

And the night took on its own essence, caked in the dried spittle of people screaming after a sip of beer, striving to overcome the deafening bass, moving to it blinking flashes and ringing, a bucket of ice, whiskey, shots, bumping, there across my sight those pearl whites, a dress and me dressed also; in Andres’ best…club’s the first since a while.

Someone screamed over the noise: “Come on this is lame let’s go downstairs and dance!”

We weren’t dancing? No, I suppose moving in a club and drinking is not dancing. Downstairs we found that the ambiance created was by a red lamp, its -ness bounding over shoulders to make crisp smooth of revelers’ skin. I thought to the other day, when with the family we had gone to the big commercial mall, and there I noticed that plastic mannequins, too, have breast implants. Damn the drink!

Drink it now, enjoy! You’re going home. Going home, through Colombia. To redundant street signs and your cat’s chronic renal failure. That’s part of home. To cops and their singular mind to kill coyotes when they stray into suburban grids; to 250 dollar glasses and TV in every room with TV shows about everything quaint and doesn’t matter if it’s not, they make it entertaining. That’s home. To sprinklers. Driers. Dishwashers. Home. To private beaches and parks that close at 9. To frozen food in boxes, to digital cable, carpeting and dogs on leashes. Institutionalized tipping, artificial thunder sounds when grocery produce is watered automatically, to a kosher foods section, to genetic modification. To suburban blandness. To sod. To twinkies and yellow lemons, and toilet paper going into the toilet. To paying with cards, to baseball metaphors, to pristine impossible yards. Video billboards, to apples wrapped in plastic, and yucca labeled specialty. Home where McDonald’s is cheap, and where “sympathy” is a category in the Hallmark cards section of Target and Walmart and Sears and TJ Maxx and OfficeMax and Office Depot and Staples and Costco and Sam’s Club. To unbroken curbs. To broken sink disposals. Express lanes to get to everything indoors, or summer segways, alien beach rules. To savings catalogs junkmail. Drive through banks. To super duty trucks, gift card culture, TOTAL SAFETY CULTURE as admonished and trademarked by METRA, and to 5 dollar bus rides. To the @ over the 2, 25 dollar parking. 2% milkfat. 9 varieties of apples. 7 brands of Moosetracks. 20 avenues into the city. 5 inches to the 3 quart heavy jaw-dislocating hamburger, 2 dollar extra for avocado. Home to rampant adolescence calling out awkward moments or calling people weird. To salt, sugar, fat. To large waistbands and lolling strides. To long lines at drive-through fast-food, at banks. To long lists limiting liability. To backed-up express lanes no public bathrooms automatic sensors on toilets that take your toilet paper used and leave some for your heel to lick. An entire population addicted to addicting caffeine arguing about drugs toilet paper trailing their strides.

Where was I? Merengue in my hips, a soft hand in mine, and pearl whites as I to all appearances followed Stafany’s steps. Salsa. And then cumbia. Then joropo. I took my new moves to the floor with Nelly and she coolly ear to the music.

I saw Stefany several more times. Between her classes she showed me the town, the Merida zoo where the great danta licks my hand below its shapeshifting nose. We visited an ice cream parlor that served up the delicacies: salmon, tomato, tuna, hamburger, onion, mushrooms in wine, avocado, rice, meat, coca cola… there’s never enough time to taste all the flavors. That goes for many things, in many places.

Charlie Chaplin became a drawing in my moleskin. So did Stefany.

Drawing of a Venezuelan Girl

I made this drawing of a Venezuelan girl, who allowed me to sketch her, her being an art student and all.

Drawing of Charlie Chaplin

This drawing of Charlie Chaplin is actually a sketch of a statue in Merida, Venezuela.

 

William took me along with him to his work one sunny day. He is a journalist, and often goes to locations to film projects on his own accord. After presenting me to several of his colleagues in a gold hued brutalist concrete government office building, we were off. We travelled to three different locations to film. The first was a location where workers were reconstructing a pipeline across a bridge. The second was sheer cliff face that he recorded on film as part of a project to show the retaining structure they had constructed. The third was a spot in the middle of the road where another pipe had to be repaired.

I went also with Nelly one day. Her job is to act as an overseer of governmental projects. We drove with her assistant to Ejido, a cupped city much like Merida, essentially attached at the latter’s hip. Here we saw a high-angle road and curbside that had been constructed in an area prone to inundation. Nelly heard the foreman complain about the stalemate in negotiations between the socialist construction company and a capitalist supply company. So it goes, here.

Elsewhere, we came and saw a large cohort of men, and women, hauling, hammering sweating in the construction of houses.

“These men and women here,” said Nelly, “are building their own houses.”

“How’s that?”

“The government is paying them, and it is paying for these houses. Theirs were lost in a flood earlier this year. You see how the comandante has organized things?”

“I see.”

“The people are empowered to get their life back. Help, but a cooperative help. It’s my job to make sure the funds are being put to good use.”

“Where does corruption happen?”

“Not at any of my projects, no. I can assure you of that.”

Good, I thought. Her passion for her politic was matched only by her passion for her comandante. She is not a pawn of a dictatorship. Not a prisoner of a tyrant.

“How many leaders stress love and community? How many?” she asked.

“I guess not many,” I conceded.

“It’s special,” she said. She insisted, “it’s special.”

Politics is where passion for living usually goes to die. Sometimes it seems an iRobot-type overlord impartial robotic entity as governor harshly would be an efficient remedy for our toils. But then, much of what makes us human is the quarrelling itself. Whether it’s good or bad–baloney! None there is of good or bad or meaning except as thought.

“Why was he gazing upwards from the steps of the porch, hearing their shrill twofold cry, watching their flight? For an augury of good and evil? A phrase of Cornelius Agrippa flew through his mind and then there flew hither and thither shapeless thoughts from Swedenborg on the correspondence of birds to things of the intellect and of how the creatures of the air have their knowledge and know their times and their seasons because they, unlike man, are in the order of their life and have not perverted that order by reason.”

-James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

One of the last nights in town, when I had finished reading “The Art of War” in Spanish, Stefany took me up and we arrived to a Biscochera. Midnight walls and sticking floors.

“No you can’t, with the left hand only,” she said.

“Cheers,” I said after switching hands. “What’s the deal?”

“In Venezuela only with the left.”

“Why do you think Andres has The Art of War in his room?”

She giggled.

And we danced again, pilsen (dark beer, here), weighing down the stomach. Punk, reggae, ska, heavy electronic, dubstep, salsa again, merengue again. When the music stopped I was relieved as when the fever breaks. Sometimes the hype is in the haunches, other times not.

In the air The Economist. Monaco lavish condos “42 stories, 170 metres… take your place above the rest.” Soon a planted planned concrete orchard where the fruit is always already fallen. Americans, so easy to offend we are. Professionals. Everyone professionals. Professional. Curtsy and bow and make you humble, professionalism, make you alabaster shame. Burrough outside the social context. Most humans use intellect for stimulation alone in their herd-fashion social urge. Nietzsche elephant stash’s aphorism. Fort Lauderdale apples sealed in airless plastic. Not super Superburgers. Image and ferd-hashion uocial surge. Mine generation to fill and grow tradition to chase the dollar and before long lamenting itself and praising the nexts. Everlasting cult of the child–it’s up to you, son. We failed.

At the trollebus stop now in day, and William there with a wide beaming surrendering smile, and then a somber countenance overlaid like the smooth transition sometimes in films, his heart strong for a goodbye, not unlike the welcoming or wellwishing his son the traveler, but in his stead me. Nelly and William and Sara, Andres absent but very present in their minds, as absence so easily affords when there is love.

I shook heartily William’s hand and returned the smile. I thanked him for the blue collared shirt he gave me, and begged him thank Nelly for the other blue collared shirt she gave me. He drove off then, into the droves of others piling into memory, and I hoped my mind would create adequately a connection to remember him by.

 


 

Amber night city of the sleeping giants. Medellin, Colombia. It had taken 3 days to arrive via chill mountain passes and short cuts along low smoldering valleys. The last man who brought me into the city in a small white sedan, a car that hiccupped it seemed to me as we made our way up through Pablo Escobar’s old town haunts, had asked, no, he had insisted, on a remembermeby. From my pocket I produced a yellowish greenish bluish folded paper, a timeless token teeming with recuerdos and delineated along its parchment a narrow black line visiting on all the places I’d visited upon. Go ahead, then, and take it. I still have my memories written in cyberspace. I have my cyber map. No need for it more.

Medellin, shrouded in a hazy Andean bowl of its own, welcomed me with its Spaniard crowns and busy arteries. The bus brought me barreling beside the river Porce and before I realized it I stood bemused once more among businesses and Botero. The latter’s fat bronze figures stood tall and sturdy in their plaza, children licking on ice cream cones beside, lovers necking beside, lunatics chanting. Life flowed freely in the street, visible and active. Sounds of vendors pitching to passersby lighted on the air and mingled with the thunder of a passing metro car above, near its pillar a hobbling crone causing crashing stings of her cane striking concrete ground to within earshot on one side, on the other the coagulated murmur of hundreds of people accented by eccentric shouts by the extroverted shoe shiners and gum salesmen, men hovering over canvas displays of CDs and sunglasses, woman waiting awaiting afront their clothing outlets. My eyes wound round the place there were so many sensory sweets, until finally I wobbled reeling into the Museo de Antioquia.

Botero’s figures herewithin were consolidated in his pretty paintings pinned up on white glossy walls. I love a museum. Each piece with its simple light. Each light like an observant snake. Demands serpentine patience. The paintings here were large expansive works from floor to ceiling 8 foot high. Botero’s plump characters in this position or that, in this old vestment or that–lace, corset, skin, clowning. Pablo on the Roof, riddled with bullets. Much is about Colombian life, but the artist is international. He’s 80. Colombian icon. Colombian hero. Lives in Paris, Lived in New York. Of course, he has to, all the greats have to at some point. Ain’t so?

By nightfall and a shirt soaked through in tired sweat, Merida behind, I had reached the Colombian border at San Antonio del Tachira, just beyond the large Venezuelan city of San Cristobal. Daylight by now waning, too late to cross, and wanting to see about exchanging the weak bolivar for stronger Colombian pesos, Venezuela would keep me for sleep these last few hours, but she would not loose me on her streets but feed me and shelter me in a bed. The firemen of San Anotonio in their graciousness procured me a space in the dorm, a stiff mattress to wallow away in dream.

90 of 100 bolivares left ended up going to a sly exit charge, for which I waited one hour in line to pay. The border guard had stopped me. Wanted dollars. No dollars, honcho, no money left you duck-like ferret. Same guard was stopping motorcycles arriving from Colombia. Only stopped well-endowed single women. The fucking ferret. Those damn glazed-over careless soulless ojos for which the transmigration never quite terminated. An empty person, a useless peg. (Ugly moral aesthetic of the public suburban genre but behind closed doors it’s anyone’s guess–mind’s in America).

Brother Jose and Sister Maria Isabel my hosts were gone one night somewhere for a relative’s sweet sixteen birthday party. I was among the fluorescent vibrancy of Medellin’s metro to meet a couple and go with them on a rampage of alcoholic debauchery atop some roof somewhere south. After the Poblado stop, hollow lanes of tunneling black did not tickle their fancies for a walk, so in a taxi we arrived to this square building boring enough on the outside but whose noggin soon would mise me en scene. A few more swigs of my pocketed aguarrrrrrdiente and low and behold the starry night! It was a birthday party for some CS, and his renown for his parties leveled by DJs brought in a small neighborhood. No bother with the dancing, instead I slurped heavy from the nozzle of that little bottle, sharing with the neighborhood who asked.

“Oh,” she said, “hmm, it’s OK. But I like it without sugar.” A small plastic shot glass in her hand, glitter speckling her chest, beaming eyes, alcohol flared nostrils. Perfect fucking fingers.

“Which one doesn’t have sugar?”

“The one with the blue cap, see, yours has red.”

Oh damn it. We spoke of love and loves then. I looked beyond her to the cascading lights from where I had come, a long single strand of electricity uninterrupted until its zenith and there disappears behind shadow mountains. Just a few more days, up that thing and onward in flight. Never enough time for anything. The girl catches my gaze and follows it. Pretty neckline, shimmering earrings. Never the time. Too many people, too many ideas. Too much of everything, really. Too many artists, too many ids, too much hypersexuality, to many rooftop terraces. Too much possibility.

Beyond Pamplona Bucaramanga, a cloud city. Vast cascading views down green grass grey rock land. Grass trimmed even in the shade. Had to see vee zee outside the global economic context. Now Colombia’s eastern hills descending through placards of fog, sunlight searchlight circle beam aura erased by the bluredged haze. Smoky. A prism of exaggerated evanescent colors. Glistening waxy green leaves that look fake. Crops share in space with tropical trees, roadside sellers of arepa de chocolo, guavanitas and papaya. Old men chewing reed eyes peering outward from the shade of vaquero gallon hats, pink dress shirts soiled in sweat. Curtailing road, blue motorbike headlamps. The radio Colombian musica salsa Andean hybrid. Dog, coke, aguila beer, cars careen. Open window wind in beard, Copetran, walker women with strollers, men hauling canvas bags with sandaled earth caked feet. Litter of the ferns and banana trees. Ceramic alters to the dead, hanging plastic mesh bags of oranges for sale. Corrugated metal roofs, black water tanks to soak the rays. Shovels and men their patching the road with dirt. Cram your mouth with letters and slap hard together your cheeks… Barrancabermeja.

Camp beside a big rig. The morning had been good. Motorbike man when I’d walked already many hours in the new heat, who had stopped, who had said get on board you’ll be otherwise all day in this swelter, don’t mind the law you don’t need a helmet. He dropped me opposite Cucuta, big Colombian urban space. The men, then, as I walked, who from their lawn chairs outside the electronics shop poor on inventory, said to come; come, gringo, come and smoke this fantastic marijuana. Look, in fact, I want you to have this. And he held out a brick of pot size of which like a Gameboy. At least let us put you aboard a bus, no, yay, no, yes. Meals gifted when asked for rice, nothing new there–just more karma to account for here, nice.

All night the prostitutes’ swagger under porcelain orbs aglow in the open air truck stop. Men of the warrior class of truckers grabbing ass, bristle, gristle. These men these nowhere everywhere men. These women, their women, painted and are painted, lost in the sterile tenebrosity of the night.

The stinking morning of a tropical tent, when I’m quick to pack it. Onward the same trucker takes me. A butterfly riding the forward drafts over the cab. We stopped for plantains and eggs. “I once trafficked two Chinamen, 1 million pesos each,” says he. “I pay.”

Then a spliff, then the white sedan, then the giving losing of my map.

Portrait of a Colombian woman

Portrait of a Colombian woman. This is Maria-Isabel, my lovely host in Medellin. She allowed me to draw her.

 

I went then to stay with another, Milena, her apartment on the 13th floor or higher, and the terrace, another terrace, looking over the city, its amber waves when the drink is right rolling; a peaceable hallucination.

Soon I’d leave Medellin for the Midwest. To the monotone suburbs. The McMansions. Latinos blow leaves. Town hall cuts down trees. Builds fences for neighbors’ privacy. Don’t even know the people 50 feet away. Total anonymity, total autonomy, total property privacy don’t-ask-me-how-much-I-make-that’s-rude. Keep serene the surrounds, your actions tranquil conformist. Pull you over with three SUV patrols for want of anything smarter to do than chide you your faulty registration light. My little bag among the time capsule of the old room like another civilization come hither. The window, but there, on the street, the favorite blooming tree to climb, red, orange, white, in spring, now gone. Bachelor party strippers. Wedding and brief encounters… so much love and never enough time to see it manifest somehow–hell if anyone knows how, whether it’s worth. The most beautiful place in a house for the mind is the attic, if it has a window. Not human to be one hundred percent consistent in anything. Not enough time to care. Not enough time to truthfully care.

“Society is a goddamn tug of war, progressing in one area, regressing in another. You ever notice that in the office world the idea of nature and natural landscape beauty is used in promotions of life insurance? They say ‘live your life, don’t wait’, and there’s a picture of a goddamn golden track tailing out into the distance of a green field of rolling hills. You ever notice that? I’ll tell you what, though. We’re alone in this life. Doesn’t matter if you are suffocating in love, because in the end we’re very much alone. A bunch of loners, stubborn too. You know, you can’t change a mind, usually, if it’s already ‘mature’…don’t get me started on that word… it’s hard to change anyone’s mind, even if they’re not so sure their ideas are right. You know what I mean? Maybe comedy is the best way to get to someone. But that shit usually isn’t funny. Where’s my beautiful model to steal me away to Mars to live as apes and fuck in public? How long until the job nullified someone’s cares against it? Huh? Damn off-white world of shades of yellowing grey… offices, you know? They make euphemisms of everything, make it more acceptable in that wannabe esoteric professional style. Stationery stores become ‘office supply depots’. Moving companies become ‘logistics solutions’. A world that sucks the water from you, the dry paper that takes all your liquids, those precious bodily fluids, and cuts you bleeding in turn. You know, I held the door for a woman and damn me if I said it but I did, I says, ‘oh! this door is a little heavy!’ I hate small talk. You know what she says? She says, ‘I’m good, how are you?’ Pumped full of coffee. My brother calls people drones.”

“Good that you’re too intense, man. Too intense for people. Too intense for me I’ll tell you. Stay that way, though. Shows passion. Don’t calm yourself. Some people want love as a muse, but there are some things to be said about love. Time does not give you authority over it, for example. Time gives you pride in its endurance. I don’t think you want love for someone as your muse. You’ve had it–you rejected it. Life is your muse. So go on then, alone as you say we are, but go on and live and keep it fresh, would you?”

“My world is thoughtful lunacy.”

“A lot of people have that world.”

“You know I was thinking, that the most rampant discrimination comes from those unwitting participants, those that propagate it from the blue. Like casters who cast ugly people as villains. Damn Hollywood buffoons with their morals, forcing their self righteousness down the throats of every little kid since his coming into the world. Everyone grows up arguing but they’re all saying the same damn thing in different lexicons, or what they disagree on isn’t worth an afterthought. The right combination of cheapness and the lowest common denominator of passable quality is rewarded with fame or success. Then you live your life but you’re a customer of medicine all the same, and you park your car always with traffic and you know what’s right and wrong because you’re completely conditioned, but you ignore that last part of it.”

“What in the blazes are you talking about?”

“We’re all full of shit.”

When night consumed the last day I would spend in Medellin, I found myself taking time to stroll by the planetarium. Beside it rose gently the tiled plaza where students would gather and sit toasty close together to watch projected on the building’s side the film or documentary of the evening. I had a bag of papaya and nibbled on a slice. A succulent fruit, the papaya here in Colombia does not refer to the woman’s gonads, like it does in Mexico, and so it would be hard to make a fool of yourself with it. I dropped my slice all the same, which upon landing splattered my khakis in pinkred speckles. I stared at the projection, but felt the eyes of carousing witnesses and their trembling suppressed laughter.

I made my way along the balustrade to the side of the planetarium nearest its metro station. There I finished the rest of the papaya and crumpled the bag, sliding it into my pocket.

“Hey mister, quieres comprar un chiclet?” It was a boy holding before me a box of candy and gum, its straps wrapped about the boy’s neck.

“Oh, creo que los chiclets no van con el papaya,” I said briefly.

“Ai pero si van, es rico!”

“Rico? Papaya and gum together?”

“Si, si. No hay problem. Cinquenta centavos.”

“That’s ok, maybe later.”

Later the boy returned with a friend, a somewhat older boy, about fifteen I thought, and they sat beside me.

“You like Colombian food?” asked the little boy.

“Tortas fritas,” I said, rubbing my belly. “Eso mas que todo.”

The boy laughed and said, “Oh but those are cheap. You know what I like best?” He looked up at me with his thick cheeks and peerless virtue.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Mmmm,” he said. “I love arepa con chocolo, melted butter on top and a slice of cheese, and hot chocolate on the side. Have you had that?”

“Well, you’re a connoisseur, little man.” His older companion was looking off at the crowds that were watching the projection.

“I love love anything with chicken, too.” He squirmed in his seat, his plump little self giddy with anticipation. “Mom’s going to make us chicken tonight.”

“Are you brothers?”

“Oh, no! We’re just friends.”

“So,” I said, hesitating at first, “why are you selling candy out here so late at night, do you go to school?”

“Yes. I want to be a businessman.”

“A businessman? What kind of business?”

“Yes. I don’t know. I just want to work in an office.”

“You have to study a lot to be a businessman, shouldn’t you be studying?”

“Well,” he said, “I study a lot. Raphael knows it, right Rafael?”

The other boy looked down at his companion and at me. “I want to be a policeman, or an economist.”

“Well,” I said.

“We both study in the mornings,” said Rafael.

“And then we sell candy on the buses,” the plump boy added.

“What’s your name, by the way?”

“I’m Miguel.”

“Nice you meet you Miguel, and… Rafael?”

“Yeah.”

“So how’s business now? Where do you get those candies anyway?”

“Oh we get them from a store, they always give kids the extra stuff. We sell mostly on buses.”

“You have a spiel? A speech?”

Rafael became animated at this inquiry. “Oh yea,” he said.

“Can I hear it?”

He cleared his throat and jumped up standing before us. “It’s this. ‘Ladies and gentlemen hello sorry to disturb you on this evening but I’d like to draw your attention to the sensation that is the miracle taste of Dulces Elite Bam Bam candies. You have melon, strawberry, grape, lemon, fruit juice, pineapple, apple, orange, papaya, guava, cherry and chocolate and coffee. All it will take is one small donation of 50 centavos just 50 and you can have not one, not two, not three or even four but five, that’s right five Dulce Elite Bam Bam treats. Thank you all for your time.”

“Wow that’s a lot to remember, not bad,” I said.

Rafael was beaming, looking from me to Miguel.

“He’s the talker,” said Miguel. “I go around and put the candy on peoples’ laps. They don’t buy, I collect ’em up again.”

“Your parents know you’re out here doing this?” I asked.

“”Course. It’s their idea.”

“Do you like it?”

“Yea we love it. We get to use the money too, we get all the sweets we want.” Miguel said this as he unwrapped a Dulce Elite Bam Bam, tossed it into his mouth and with it pressed up against his already bubbly cheek gave me a big squinting smile.

“I have an idea for you guys,” I said. They looked at me expectantly. “Rafael you wanna be an economist?”

“Yes, or a policeman.”

“Not corrupt, right?” I said pointedly.

“Oh no, I hate corruption. I’ll be a policemen to not be corrupt.”

“Good to hear. But economist, I think you should shoot for that, if you’re going to spend time in school anyway. And here’s an idea. If you guys are gonna be selling stuff anyway, have you thought, and although I really like your speech, have you thought of changing it?”

“Oh,” said Rafael. “Um, no, why change it??

“Well not change it, I mean, but make another one. Look here. To get practice, you guys should record all the factors–”

“–factors?”

“…I mean you should write down all the different ways you’re selling your candies. You can make a sheet, and write down what time of day it is, how many people are on the bus, and which speech you use. You can make different speeches.”

“How would they be different?”

“Oh, however,” I said. “Make one go slower, make another go faster, and another use really loving words and another you can use very direct words. Make some speeches longer, some shorter.”

“Ok, ok I see, and?”

“And then you write down how many sales you make, you know, with all the other things–time of day, how many passengers, etc.”

“Ok but what happens with all the information we write down?” asked Rafael. Miguel was perched on the back of the bench watching me intently.

“Then you have a record of alllll your sales, and you can see which worked better. Which speech, in which situation, you see? Maybe you can even try selling from one spot instead of on buses and see if that helps, you give speeches in the public space but not on buses, or not.”

“Oooooh,” said Miguel. “Yeah!”

“Got it?” I asked.

“That’s a good idea,” said Rafael.

“Well it’s what an economist might do as a young man to understand his market.”

“…”

“To make more sales.”

“Ah yea. Hey,” said Rafael, “that’s great, we’re gonna do that. Maybe we can do all of that, and, then, we can sell different candies to see if they sell better.”

“Hey, yea, Rafael, you got it down better than I had,” I said. “Good idea.”

“Well, we should get going,” Miguel said, pulling himself back from the bench as though it was suddenly moving forward. Then he stood and gathered his box. “Here take these,” he said.

“Oh no I couldn’t you guys go on and sell ’em.”

“We never sell ’em all anyway,” he said, and dropped some Dulce Elite Bam Bam candies into my lap.

“Nice ta meet ya!” he said, and he bounced off with Rafael to catch the next bus.

“The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.”

-James Joyce, Ulysses

Into Pamplona, and the trucker’s trailer nearly snagging hanging cables above, and already the vehicle’s bulk too great for the street. Merida Cucuta now behind, not a day’s more hours to Medellin. There in Medellin to sit at the stairs beside the main square, watching men drinking coffee and debating, strangers mostly amongst themselves. Eating fried chicken and coin-sized arepas. Old couples dancing to music there, and over there opposite a megaphone unemployment protest. The candy sellers might like Venezuela for the empowerment it gives them, but we only know what we know, and mostly the state tells us what we know. There schoolgirl uniforms. There a pro-choice activist circle–imagine they go to a pregnant lady, “you can get rid of it you know, it’s your body.” Dress shirts loose. T-shirts tucked. Army uniforms, police curmudgeons. There, cell phone wielders minutes sellers and customer. There, grocery carts loaded with fruit, and there in the center men, women, beautiful, ugly, occupy the hero statue plinth and await their handy destinies.

Drawing of Medellin, Colombia

A collection of faces inspired by the Museum of Antioquia, and the central plaza of Medellin.

Travel drawing in Colombia

A few sketches from the Botero Museum in Medellin, including his depiction of Pablo Escobar dying on the rooftops.

 

 


 

Pamplona, now: Colombia’s university town where students abound, hitherandthithering. Make no allusion to the worth of a student driver, who in class expands and contracts his mind at once, and I know. They pass me utterly by the morrow when I’m climbing up the road fresh peaches in my hand. Not long do I grumble over any trespass, just the huffing hoofing up the city’s bowl rim, from where, now I see, the city scenic. Passed the uni and round a bend, and there’s a man, timeworn ripples in his face, in rubber boots, herding a pair of calves with a stick, herding them through a rusted drawing of barbs. Old truck rumbling past and a new big rig battering past and bruising the air a tenacious engine brake. Young girls pass and giggle, and I have peaches in my pocket and chocolate. And city pigeons cooing. And roosters crowing. The rising sun breaching the ridge and casting ageless shadows. I get a sense of this great Latin Land, here clambering into modernity, and wholeheartedly, but sometimes even scratching backward at the pavement unwitting in forward movement, dragging tradition along behind. I feel, then, and nimbly, as finally I reach an apogee where continuing will shroud Pamplona in memory’s past, a sense of my purpose.

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile, and cunning.”

-A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man

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