Saturday, September 8, 2007

Andres and Ciudad Bolivar

From where I live it’s about an hour to Portal del Sur, the final Transmilenio bus stop in the most southwestern region of Bogota: Ciudad Bolivar. It is an area that few foreigners ever mention, never mind visit. For Andres Cortes, the doorman at the hotel I had stayed in weeks prior, I’d be the first foreigner to visit his home.

I had taken a liking to Andres. He was 22 years old and always greeted me with a smile and friendly conversation. He had a good sense of humor and no sense of entitlement. We met at 1 p.m. at the bus stop and walked along the sidewalk next to a major highway, Autopista Sur. We talked about how beautiful a day it was and how unlike at Monserrate, I wore suntan lotion. We walked past a row of flower vendors, and the largest cemetery in the city. When we spoke, it was a combination of English and Spanish. I preferred he speak in English and he preferred I speak in Spanish.

It was a balance as we taught each other new words and phrases. Clumps of red-bricked houses, shaped like boxes, stood a few stories high on the green hill on the other side of the highway. We crossed a bridge over the highway. Andres pointed to a large brick building, explaining it was a large cigarette manufacturing plant. Then we passed local vendors. One of them sold shells to drink from and plants that looked like and were used like loufah sponges for showering. Walking down a side road I saw a young guy selling mandarins, which rested inside the hood of an old car.

He also had a speaker playing music inside the hood. It was an odd sight so I took a photo. It was about a 20-minute walk to Andres’s house. He knew it well and often ran most of the way because he was late for work. He pointed to the concrete plant in a vacant lot over the wall on the sidewalk. A hundred feet ahead he told me about a guy who had died one night at that spot. He didn’t know for sure how he died, but thought a boulder fell on him from the sidewalk. There was blood in the road for four days, he said. That was when it was a dirt road with large potholes. It had been recently paved. Like much of Bogota, big improvements have been made in the last few years. For instance, on a 2006 map I own there is no Portal del Sur bus stop. Andres’s neighborhood, La Estancia, stood at the foot of the hill. He was lucky. Other people living in Ciudad Bolivar had to take a bus or make a long walk just to reach Portal del Sur. This meant a two-hour commute each way to work downtown or the near northside.

On the way to his house, Andres asked me if I wanted to play Rana, the Spanish word for frog. Rana is a game that reminded me of pinball and bocce. Each competitor had to stand about 10 feet away from a wooden stand, which had three metal frogs on top with various round holes around them. Each competitor had six metal rings slightly smaller than the holes, which he threw toward the holes. Each hole had a different compartment and score. Getting it in one of the frog’s mouths was worth more points. The object was to get the most points. There was also a hook on the front of the stand. If you could throw your ring on the hook, you automatically won the game. Finally we arrived at a corner where we walked into a room with enough space for a counter, two small wooden tables, and a group of about six or seven men drinking Colombian beer. Along the far wall was a Rana stand, which Andres showed me. He introduced me to his grandfather, who stood alone behind the counter. I followed Andres to a door behind the counter, into his home.

Andres lived with his grandparents. His mother died a few years ago from stomach cancer. His father lives far away and he never sees him. There were basically two rooms in his house, the kitchen and the bedroom, where there were four twin-beds along the walls, and a small crib for his younger and favorite brother, Christian. It was a small room. It had enough space for the beds and some room in the middle. Stuffed animals, individual family photos, and decorations hung from the walls. A small black television played music videos on top of the dresser near the doorway, where four small boys stood with blank expressions on their faces. Two of the boys were his brothers, including Christian. The other two were his cousins. They gave me five but didn’t say much. Andres showed me a poster above his bed titled: “Los Dos Caminos,” or The Two Ways, or The Two Paths. It had many intricate drawings of people with the corresponding bible verse numbers next to each one. At the end of the path to the left was hell, and the end to the right was heaven. “When I wake up each morning, I look at this to make sure I’m a good boy,” Andres says with a laugh. We sit on his bed as there are no chairs in his house. And even if they had chairs, there was not much room for them. Then his grandmother entered the room with glasses of homemade blackberry juice. Then we walked into the kitchen and she handed us plates of rice and steak with peppers. It was a good meal, a special meal she had prepared for me. I had given them a special gift as well, a bottle of pure Vermont maple syrup. It was as foreign to them as the game of Rana was for me.

But I explained what it was, and figured they could put it on Arepas since pancakes weren’t common. While we ate, Andres told me about his family and the various photos on his wall. I asked about his neighborhood. No one had computers or Internet in La Estancia or the region of Ciudad Bolivar. They were too poor, Andres had told me. It must have been a heavy load for his grandparents. Andres had a sister but I never saw her. She had a severe mental handicap and rarely left the bathroom. He had a black-and-white photo of his other grandfather on the wall, the grandfather who drowned in a river after drinking too much at age 15. Yet, I never would have known any of this if I hadn’t visited him. Nor would I probably know that he works 84 hours a week as a doorman for pocket change. Or that he was robbed at gunpoint a few months ago, losing his entire savings but kept it a secret from his grandparents as to not stress them. Even when he told me these things they didn’t seem so bad, just the way life is. He always seemed so upbeat. Though I pointed to a picture of him above his doorway. Andres was 15 in the photo. He had a sad expression. He told me it was a difficult time for him but that he is happy now.

After lunch, we played Rana outside the store while Christian sat on a log and helped out. Andres beat me good. Then we walked up the hill so we could see the view of the city. Before I left, I had to go pee, but I couldn’t use the bathroom because of his sister. Inside the store, there was a small concrete shoot against the wall with two small curtains next to it. Andres told me to pee into it. So I peed with a bunch of local men literally right next to me drinking. For most foreigners it might have felt weird, but for me it felt normal. When you got to go, you got to go. It doesn’t really matter who is looking.