Friday, September 14, 2007

The Colombian, the Gringo and the Priest

Andres and I practically fell into the bus as people pushed and shoved to enter from the Transmilenio platform. It was about a quarter past six, just about the worst time to travel anywhere in Bogota. We had a long trip, especially considering there were no empty seats forcing us to stand for the hour ride. We had already changed buses once. Once we arrived at the final stop, Portal del Sur, we stepped onto a green bus. Then we had to walk 10 minutes, crossing the same bridge we had the previous week, only now it was dark. It was safer by bus at night. We got on a third bus, a small white bus. “The white Transmilenio,” Andres jokes. Everyone could stand up straight. I had to duck because my shoulders nearly touched the ceiling. It was a bumpy, uncomfortable ride along the steep dirt road. Every time the rickety bus hit a pothole my head slammed into the ceiling. Some of the locals smiled at my awkward predicament. Andres laughed too. I’m probably the first foreigner on this bus, I thought, but I’m lucky. These people have been riding this bus their entire lives. The view made up for it. Thousands of white lights in the city’s valley could be seen along the way. It wasn’t just my first time on this bus. Andres had never ridden it either since his house was at the base of the hill. A local man helped us find the correct stop and pointed to an unlit area away from the road. We followed his direction and Andres said he knew where the church was. We had returned on this Wednesday night to attend the service and give the people the pictures I had printed and carried with me in a folder along with a CD of all the photos. The walk was different from the one we had taken before, but Andres knew the way and we soon saw the soccer field we had visited the previous Saturday.

The church was no different from the other homes next to it and we wouldn’t have known it was a church if the priest hadn’t told us so. Outside the door a dog barked at us. Andres knocked on the door lightly and someone opened it. As we walked inside, everyone turned and looked at us. There were forty people in the room with virtually no room to walk or move around. Everyone wore street clothes, jeans and sweatshirts and sneakers. They sat in rows in white plastic chairs. Along the wall near the door was a row of white plastic chairs. Two women stood up and moved down so Andres and I could sit. They put their children on their laps and sat down. The priest stood at the front, talking into a microphone. The people listened intently. A florescent light hung from the tin-roof ceiling above him. There was a normal bulb shining from the middle of the ceiling. Next to the priest was a tall white vase with a few dozen red roses. I couldn’t tell whether they were real or not. The windows on my side of the wall were not transparent, and several posters were on them. Other posters of bible verses hung along the four walls, including a bigger version of the poster Andres owned: Los Dos Caminos. The Two Paths. Andres and I arrived at 7:45. The service ended at 8:45. The priest talked the entire time without pausing. Apparently, Andres said, there had been singing when the service had begun at 7. Now it was a one-man show. The priest articulated his Spanish words but I still had a difficult time understanding what he was saying. After a while I tuned him out and watched a little girl crawl on the concrete floor below me, playing peekaboo and smiling. Her mother grabbed her a few times, holding her on her lap. She was restless. The rest of the audience was well-behaved and listened intently to what the priest said, laughing and saying Amen every once in a while. I noticed a pretty woman in the front row constantly nodding her head and smiling and saying Amen more than anyone else. As I discovered after the service, she was the priest’s wife. The woman to my right, near the door, kneeled down on the floor with her hands on her white chair facing away from everyone. For nearly an hour she was saying something in a quiet voice and nearly sobbing. I couldn’t tell because she had her head against her hands, and the priest was talking into the microphone. For the final five minutes the people bowed their heads and prayed as they recited verses while the priest kept talking into the microphone. I bowed my head too, but looked up every once in a while. The small girl near me was still crawling on the floor.

As the service ended the priest introduced Andres and me to the congregation. He, like most Colombians, had a hard time pronouncing my first name. Then I took the photos I had printed of the children on the soccer field and handed them to the priest’s wife. A group of children swarmed around her as well as many adults. Relax, she told the children as they tried grabbing them from her hands. I also handed her the CD. She said she had a friend who owned a computer, something very rare in this area. Then a group of teenage girls approached me. One of the girls, with big, pudgy cheeks and a big smile, asked me many questions. Where are you from? What is your job? What do you write about? What are you working on? What do you think of Colombia? Where else have you traveled? Where do you live now? They were giggling and smiling. I enjoyed the attention. Then I talked to the priest as Andres acted as my translator. The priest asked me if I’d return. I told him I’d be running a basketball clinic in nearby Santo Domingo on Sunday. He said he’d tell the children in his neighborhood. He asked me if I played soccer. Only goalie, I said, I’m better with my hands than my feet. The church was still crowded, probably because Andres and I had visited. They didn’t get visitors from downtown, never mind another country. About half of us left together. The city looked like a blanket of lights. I should have brought my camera. The girl who was crawling on the floor was now running around like a chicken and smiling as she put gum in her mouth with the wrapper as I told her no. She continued doing this. Then we came to a main road and they pointed to a bus and waved goodbye. Andres and I ran toward the white bus. Luckily there was a seat so I didn’t bang my head. The driver kept his foot on the brake down the very steep dirt path. He’s got good brakes, I told Andres. However, near the bottom he decided to start using more of the gas pedal, swerving around the winding road. When we stepped off the bus a woman asked me for my cell phone number because she wanted her daughter to learn English. Often when people know I speak English they want lessons. The only problem is they don’t have any money. Andres escorted me to the green bus, which I took to the red Transmilenio bus toward downtown. Even at 11 p.m., it filled up on its route. By midnight I crawled into bed, tired but feeling good as I thought about the children who will see the photos of themselves the next day.