Crisis Is Magic
A month in Colombia sheds new light on life, death, cocaine, and Ronald McDonald.
The Lost City
On the way back down from the Lost City, I rested with a Colombian anti-guerrilla soldier reading a Spanish language women’s magazine by the side of the trail. I asked him to read my horoscope so he paged past the cosmetics ads to read from his lap that the stars were aligned for my emotional, financial, and spiritual well-being. He was dressed in army fatigues, shaved bald, and his gun lay next to him in the dirt. “Crisis,” he said in Spanish. “What’s crisis?” I asked. “Like a big problem. Crisis,” he continued with authority, “for one moment is magic.” I looked out over the seemingly endless Colombian jungle and pretty much understood him.
On the first full morning on the trek to the indigenous ruins of Ciudad Perdida, our group stopped for a side trip to a cocaine paste factory. We circled up around a weed whacker, a bucket of gasoline, and a couple of garbage bags of chemicals while the 20 year old who had recently taken over the farm and factory told us we could take pictures, but not of him. He asked that if we were stopped by paramilitary, guerrillas, or soldiers to please delete the memory cards in our digital cameras. We — a group including a couple of Dutch, an Israeli, a Slovenian, and a German — nodded. Most of us recognized that it’s hard to decide what you should and shouldn’t do for money. Most of also knew that it’s difficult to understand how much what you do affects others. So we nodded and then we all took pictures of the owner simulating whacking a pile of coca, at first careful to include only his rubber boots along with the coca leaves and weed whacker.
When the owner began to explain the coca base-making process, it became clear that while some of us tourists knew more about drugs than others, none of us knew much about what went into them. He told us in kilos and liters how much gas and other chemicals went into the bucket with the ground coca, and then we all debated about translations of chemical names and measurements from Spanish to German, Hebrew, and English. We were discussing conversions of pounds to kilos, pesos to dollars, and dollars to euros when the owner siphoned the gas and chemical mixture off the coca with a big piece of tube and discarded it out onto the forest floor. “Wow,” I said.
Eventually, a few grams of cocaine base were rendered in a cheesecloth hammock suspended over a plastic juice pitcher. “Have you ever done cocaine?” one of us asked the owner. “No,” he said, like he knew what went into it, didn’t need it, and maybe — I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into this — found it morally repugnant.
“Can I smoke it?” the Slovenian in our group asked. With the owner’s permission, he used the frame of his glasses to pack the paste into a cigarette. I couldn’t help it: A little part of me admired him. In the face of the most graphic and intimate illustration of the Colombian cocaine crisis — the cause of so much violence, death, environmental destruction, corruption and addiction — the Slovenian’s first impulse was to ask simply ask, “Can I smoke it?” Then he, an Israeli, and a German smoked the absurd coca paste cigarette (which was missing sulfuric acid, the final high-inducing ingredient) while I took pictures of them smoking it.
Before the owner walked off into his incredibly steep and unterraced coca fields, and we hiked on to the Lost City, the Israeli picked up the piece of tube and pretended to inhale a couple of kilos of white calcium oxide out of a garbage bag. The Slovenian hunched over into the digital camera and said, “That’s a good picture.” I wasn’t so sure.
When I reached Ciudad Perdida the next evening, after climbing 12,000 stone stairs, my eyeball was scratched and yellowing, the insect bites on my back were filling with an alarming amount of pus (perhaps parasite-induced levels of pus), and all my clothing was damp and riding up. Still, I could tell the Lost City was haunting.
I stepped out of the foggy jungle, out of my physical misery, and into a complex of paved terraces, paths, and retaining walls that were virtually deserted. The Taironas who at one time populated this city with possibly 8,000 people are now dead, killed by Spanish disease. Today it is pretty much empty except for a group of tourists or two, who arrive and wander around and talk to the soldiers posted on top of the ruins.
At night, while I was waiting for spaghetti with canned wiener dogs to cook, I walked up to the highest terrace in the city. I hadn’t been alone in a while. The clouds rolled in, and I sat down on some stones. They could have been placed there around 800 A.D, but what I thought about was the indigenous people I had encountered that day.
There are about 32,000 descendants of the Tairona left in the Sierra Nevadas, and our trekking group gave lollipops to a few who stood outside their home, in exchange for photos. I’m not used to my presence mattering that much, and the exchange of sweets for images, as if we were on a photographic safari, left me feeling dirty and implicated in the present crisis of the indigenous.
While I was wondering if I was not personally responsible for the destruction of an entire civilization, a soldier in camouflage and an army green ski mask, with a gun in his hands, appeared out of the jungle. We fell into conversation, modern crazy conversation that was a relief to me. I asked him why he was wearing the ski mask because it wasn’t that cold, and he said he hated mosquitoes, that they bit him more than anyone else, and he lifted up the mask and smiled. The brackets for his braces were army green.
He asked me if I had a ski mask and I said not with me, but I said I had one at home for snowboarding. Another soldier appeared out of the jungle with a gun. “She snowboards,” the first soldier said.
“Ohh, like in the movies,” said the other, then he struggled to remember some snowboarding movie, and that led to a conversation about the Rock, and Steven Segal, and then some more soldiers came out of the jungle from another direction all with guns.
“How old are you?” another soldier asked. They were relaxed but direct. I said I was 29. Then I asked the one asking and he said he was 18, but that our age difference “wasn’t a problem in Colombia.” They all laughed, and agreed that it really wasn’t a problem in Colombia. I wanted to get off the subject so I asked about the paramilitary and guerrillas in the area (it’s calm now, but eight tourists were kidnapped off the trail in 2003). The soldiers seemed to know very little about the history of the place or why they were there now. Or at any rate the subject of security seemed to bore them.
“Do you like reggaeton?” one asked. This is the sort of Caribbean rap that teenagers dry hump to, and I do like it, so I said yes. “We should go out,” he said.
I said, “I hear age is not a problem in Colombia. So where’s the discotheque?” I motioned out toward the Tairona ruins and into the jungle beneath us where it was getting dark.
When we took a photo this time I didn’t feel responsible for the destruction of anyone’s culture. I just felt the magic of crisis in this moment in Colombia. “Can I hold your gun?” I asked one of the soldiers, and he seemed happy to pass it off to me.
Angel of Silence
The ultimate crisis in life might be death, but most of us don’t talk about it much. In San Gil, a couple of weeks after trekking to the Lost City, Miha the Slovenian and Kathrin the German and I sat on the steps of the quaint colonial town’s church and made jokes about going to hell. After a respectful amount of time avoiding the subject, the three of us were finally able to talk about the hamburgers we had just eaten.
They’d been dyed red and were not entirely meat. But while we were eating them in the restaurant, we sat in silence, each knowing the other was experiencing the same horrible thing, but also knowing that any discussion of the topic would just make it worse. We passed them off to Miha, who ate all of his and some of ours. On the steps of the church, we asked Miha how it was humanly possible for him to have eaten so much of it. “My god, how could you eat it?” I asked. “My god, why would anyone ever make meat that color on purpose?” Miha got up to get smokes, or a beer, and to get away from us.
Kathrin and I looked across the street to a funeral home. There was a Toyota truck with a cylindrical glass case in the bed of the truck. On the glass next to a line drawing of a church steeple and printed in black letter was the word “funeraria.” “Is that a hearse?” I asked Kathrin.
“God, can you imagine hitchhiking in that?” Kathrin said. “You could sleep in that glass case. I wish I had my camera. I would get in there and you could take my picture.” She pointed toward the funeral home. “Have you ever been on a tour of one?” she said. “Come with me.”
“No,” I said, “You go and ask.” I didn’t think anything would come of it. I sat on the steps that were still warm from the sun and looked up into the stars for a few minutes. Soon Kathrin came out and said, “Okay, he’ll show us.” I got up from the steps and walked into the funeral home.
I followed a boy through an unlit room and hallway into a lit room of display caskets. He leaned on one of them and smoked while we looked around. He was wearing a white undershirt, and a simple wooden cross around his neck, and he opened and shut the caskets casually. “The families can customize the fabrics,” he said and we touched the fabric on the inside of one of the caskets. The lining felt like a bridesmaid’s dress.
Henyober (later he showed me his name on his undertaker’s license) opened and shut a little window on one of the caskets where the face would be when it was full. “This one has a little window,” he said. He pointed to two little ones painted white and pink. “Those ones are for kids.”
“Ohhh,” said Kathrin. She wanted to have a baby. I tried to think for a moment about what it would feel like to lose a baby, but I couldn’t get into the right mood. I was now so happy to be in the funeral home that I was smiling.
Off to our right was a tiled room meant to be hosed down that had a table for a body. I wanted to look in, but I thought it would be impolite to look too hard into that room. I felt there might be a body in it, and Henyober might not be allowed to show us it, or maybe I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the body.
I picked up a three-ring binder from a shelf and placed it on the expensive casket with the window. Henyober put his cigarette out on the linoleum floor and we all leaned over the binder and flipped through it. There were plastic and ceramic sculptures for sale in one catalogue. I wanted to read their names but I could only catch one, “La Angel de Silencio,” before Henyober turned the page to show us tools.
“Scissors,” he said. “How much?” I asked. “Formaldehyde,” he said. “How much?” I asked. “Knives,” he said. “How much?” I asked. Finally, he said “Hydroaspirator.” It looked too expensive to even ask, but I did. “How much?”
“Why are you asking?” Kathrin asked, and I wasn’t sure why. Maybe the question came out of habit from backpacking on a budget. Or maybe because my Spanish is pretty much limited to these kinds of factual exchanges. Henyober told me all the prices though, and it sounded like you could pull off a decent funeral for about US $200.
Kathrin was capable of more nuanced questions in Spanish, although she did not employ all of her ability when we first came into the funeral home. When Henyober showed us a map with points on all the funeral homes operated by the same company Kathrin said, ¨Como un restaurante¨ because she didn’t know the word for “chain.” But she was happy to have come up with a way to express the same idea and said it in such a self-satisfied way that I couldn’t help but imitate her.
I was laughing at my spot-on imitation when Henyober led us into the white tiled room with a table for bodies. The table was empty, but three bullets were lined up on the wall where the tile ended. He said that the bullets came, earlier that afternoon, from the head of a man who’d been shot in nearby Bucaramanga.
Henyober looked at me. “Want to see in here?” He asked, picking up a tackle box. In the top tray was a large needle with a plunger, fishing wire, and a razor with the dead skin and stubble skuz that builds up in the back of a blade. I laughed. Then he took out the knife and we all laughed. It was a serrated steak knife, and didn’t even look like a sharp one. ¨Como un cuchillo de la cocina,¨ Kathrin said.
¨Sí,¨ he said and shook his head like he wished the funeral home had a bigger budget.
From the depths of the tackle box he drew out a pink cosmetics bag and unzipped and zipped it back up. “Wait,” I said. The bag was dirty with powder and flesh-colored base makeup, and the cosmetics inside were so old that the labels had worn off. He zipped it back open and held it while I went through the cosmetics one by one. They looked like my grandma’s. The lipstick was bubblegum pink; the powder was an old heavy cake with a divot where the applicator puff (which had clearly seen better days) rested. The mascara was brown. He pulled the wand in and out with familiarity. He said he once completed a month-long course on cosmetics in Bogotá.
I don’t think the liquid base makeup had a lid. “Here, wait,” I said and squeezed a dollop of flesh-color liquid onto my index finger and then rubbed it into the back of my left hand. It was cold and sticky and I’m sure I did it because I was afraid of doing it. “It’s not my color,” I said to them both and showed them how pink and heavy it sat in the creases of my hand.
After a while we all moved out to the front room to sit down. Outside, the light from the square was orange and ranchera music about love wafted in. Kathrin and I had a seat on a bench together. Kathrin said, “Your job is difficult…Very, very…” she was searching for a word and I thought I knew what she was looking for.
“Emocional,” I said.
“No, fisico,” she said, and did a sawing gesture over a pretend head. “But you are very strong.” She might have been flirting with him. I’m not sure. She offered to buy him a Coke.
I sat back. I liked it in the funeral home. I liked Kathrin. This day was completely unexpected. “Yeah, my job is difficult,” he said. “Like today, when it rained, I had to stay in here for like two hours.” I thought back to the three bullets he had removed from a man’s head, and did not think the rain would have been my first complaint about the job.
He was sweet, he had a round face, a soft voice, and he said that when he went to the prison to pick up bodies he always brought cigarettes for the prisoners. I liked that, and I liked that when he showed us his undertaker’s license he said, “I was very fat then,” but he was hard to get to know. He was quiet.
We apologized for asking so many questions, but he said he didn’t mind. No one asked about his job. He said he started as an undertaker when he was 14, when he had to move out of his house because of family problems, and now he worked mostly nights, seven days a week. He had just moved to San Gil a month ago, lived in a hotel, and didn’t know anyone.
Kathrin asked if he dreamed about his job, and he said no. I picked at a small lemon tree thorn that stuck in my thumb from the trek; I am embarrassed to ask people too many questions about their life. Kathrin asked if he felt differently about different bodies and he said man, woman, boy, girl — they all felt the same. I asked if he knew what kind of clothing he wanted to be buried in, and he said no. Then he thought for a second and said, “Probably a tie and long sleeves.” Kathrin asked if he ever talked to the bodies and he said yes, when he went out for a smoke break sometimes he said “Be good” or “Don’t go anywhere.”
I guess you only know so much to say about death, and none of us seemed up to discussing the subtleties of loss, which we all probably knew something about. Henyober didn’t have any work that night, and he was out of cellphone minutes and couldn’t call his friend at another funeral parlor, which is what he usually did on slow nights. So to keep him company, and because the funeral home was more comfortable and clean than our hotel, Kathrin and I stayed for a while.
Henyober smoked and I drank the funeral home coffee while Kathrin showed us tricks from a theater class she took in college. She attempted to do the worm on the big linoleum floor and then she clapped and stomped opposing parts of West Side Story’s “America” to prove something about rhythm, maybe how hard it is to have it. I did a yoga trick on the floor and then asked “Como se dice…” then did a push-up. This went on for a while and Henyober just watched, like The Gringa Show on his funeral home floor was better than nothing.
When we left at 1:00 a.m., he offered us bricks of dried dulce de leche out of a tub. I gave him my e-mail address and kissed him on the cheek, but it felt a little forced. I struggled to say, in Spanish, “San Gil would be a good place to die.” I continued: “It would be a cheap place to die. But I would not want my make-up to be too gaudy.”
Later, back in our bunk bed, Kathrin and I relived it all.
No To Kidnapping
For me, running is always one part crisis and one part magic. The day I arrived in Bogotá I went to the Museum of Police History, where I saw the large jacket Pablo Escobar was shot in. The docent, an 18-year-old police officer, said in English, “He was a very fat man,” and then laughed. I walked over to the papier-mâché replica of Pablo’s body and looked him over. He didn’t seem that fat to me. After the museum, we went to lunch with a friend of Kathrin’s, who took us out to for plates of rice, beans, deep-fried pig skin, fried eggs, guacamole, minced meat, and blood sausage. The plate is called Bandeja Paisa, and I had two glasses of lemonade to wash it down. Afterwards I felt fatter than Pablo Escobar in the 1980s.
On a lamppost outside I saw a poster with a silhouette of a fit-looking runner. For some reason the icon had either been cropped badly or the artist had chosen to leave feet off the runner. Underneath the silhouette I read Media Marathon de Bogotá 2007. “I’ll run it,” I said. “You run?” Kathrin and her friend asked.
The next morning I ran to the start. I knew it was too late to pay the entry fee and run as an honest participant, but a lady at the hostel had assured me that I could just join without registering. What I wasn’t counting on were all the barriers, police, and dogs preventing non-registered participants from joining the race. Although in retrospect since the day before I had visited a museum with a display on how dogs and police work together to maintain order in Colombia — it shouldn’t have been a complete shock.
As luck would have it though, the first person I talked to about registration, a real runner with calf definition, happened to have extra numbers. “For the half marathon or the 10-K?” he asked. “Half marathon,” I said because it sounded more respectable what with the word marathon in it, and he gave me a number with safety pins and a timing chip for free. I said “Gracias mi amor,” which is something I had been waiting to say to a stranger since I arrived in to Colombia. I couldn’t believe my good luck.
Then I began to run to the start. Goddamn, I hate to run. The first couple feet of always feel like a crisis to me. I was late and Bogotá is at an altitude of 2,700 meters and the only liquid I’d had for days was the lemonade I drank had with that goddamn Bandeja Paisa. And the dogs and police and barriers were everywhere. So, by the time I got to Simon Bolivar Square, my stopwatch said I was 18 minutes late for the start. I already feel like a fraud as a runner. I was definitely not going to catch up to anyone unless they pulled something. Something major.
I ran up to a police officer in riot gear to ask if I could still run the half marathon. He was standing on the steps of the national cathedral in bulletproof clothing with a gun and an MP3 player in his ear. I wondered what was on his playlist. He took an earbud out and said, “You could still run it,” he looked me up and down, “but maybe you just want to wait for the 10-K. At 11:00.”
I looked around the square and hundreds, maybe thousands of people were warming up for the 10-K by doing aerobics in unison around a statue of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America. An inflatable tube of Bengay stood, taller than Bolivar, on the steps of Congress. Most people were dressed in matching shirts sponsored by banks and chain supermarkets and insurance companies, and a lot of them looked reassuringly fat and underprepared for a fast run. Almost everyone had small white flags tucked into their ponytails or held up by the elastic in their pants that read “No Al Secuestro” — “No To Kidnapping.” I picked up a flag off the ground and pushed it into my ponytail. I decided to stay around for the warm-up and to run the 10-K.
On a stage in front of the Palace of Justice where hundreds of people had been shot dead by guerrillas in 1985, aerobics instructors grinded to a beat with wireless microphones. To the right, to the left, we did an aerobic move like cross-country skiing, and then I tried to pound out some salsa steps with the crowd (including some who were in line for the chemical toilets). I was a beat behind (because of my bad Spanish) so I decided to go watch a private insurance company aerobics/dance party in the corner of the square that had tall go-go dancers.
The two go-go dancing girls were wearing tight white sweats without panty lines. Their t-shirts were tied up in the back to expose their abs, and their black hair was down so they could toss it around. And, man, did they toss it. They kissed their own palms to the beat of the music and threw the kisses into the air as if they had way way too many kisses in their possession. They rocked their pelvises and lassoed imaginary synchronized lassos in the air. They looked at their own shoulders while they rolled them like their shoulders were simply too sexy not to be rolled.
But what was fascinating was that the crowd did the same thing. No matter how old they were, male or female, no matter how visible their panty line was, the fun runners got down. The music instructed “dance dance boom boom sexy dance dance,” and the crowd danced. A male dancer in white plastic Hammer pants, hoop earrings and arm warmers told the crowd to circle up and shake it, and they, in preparation for their 10-K — and I guess in the name of stretching — shook it. The scene was totally magic.
And then we lined up and started to run the 10-K. There were news cameras at the start and the crowd put their hands in the air and went wild for the cameras. I waved my arms in the air and sort of hoped I would be on TV, too.
It was Sunday and we passed shops that were closed, their shutters drawn. Stores like Dunkin’ Donuts and FedEx, as well as banks, were covered in graffiti that I could understand. I caught “massacre, resiste, Lenin, Marx, Che, Maos.” I kept running. At my pace I could read whole phrases if I tried: “contral la impunidad;” “peace without land is violence;” “no yankes;” “university is public? Where are the poor people?” “No Free Trade Agreement;” “Robbing is also terrorism;” “Está mierda, no es democracia;” “Cultura y edución no repression.” It was the most reading I’d done in a month.
For a while I used as my pace setters two college-age guys who were wearing “stop displacing indigenous people” T-shirts, board shorts, and Duma rather than Puma brand street shoes. I thought I could hang with them, but after a couple of kilometers, when we moved through downtown Bogotá onto the closed freeway then into the suburbs, they pulled ahead. “Ciao guapitos,” I thought, although I never talked to them. I found my natural pace with the older ladies, some in diet supplement t-shirts, one (dios mío) eating a square of guava paste and cheese while she ran. In the suburbs we passed under a series of “No To Kidnapping” banners and a little boy spraying runners let me drink from his hose so I didn’t have to get in line for Gatorade.
And then an old lady pulled ahead of me wearing a one-piece swimsuit with a T-shirt over it, a sunbonnet, canvass street shoes, and a rosary in one hand. This fun run did not seem like so much fun. Shame inspired me to run a little faster. I thought of reasons why I wasn’t running as fast as I knew could run if I just wanted to. I wished I had music. I thought of the 90-minute tapes that I had seen in the police museum of Pablo Escobar talking to his son in the moments before his death. They were the same brand of blank tape that I used to make mixed tapes to run with.
I felt pretty good. I liked how hard the running was making me breathe. I liked how honestly the running was forcing me to confront my life. I just ran, and thought, and looked at Bogotá for the first time. Then around kilometer nine I came up on Ronald McDonald. Goddamn, I was being beaten by Ronald McDonald.
He was wearing those huge red clown shoes and men like the Secret Service were running around him for his protection. I couldn’t get that close to him but he had that perma-grin painted on his face in red so he looked like he was enjoying the run, despite what I was guessing was a pretty dodgy training diet. I waved to him and he gave me the thumbs up, and then because I have some pride, I opened my stride out and pulled ahead to beat Ronald McDonald in the 2007 Bogotá 10-K.
Forty-five thousand people ran, so the after-party was huge. I got a banana and a medal, and I was so happy to be done running. “Put your hands in the air if you like reggaeton,” the DJ called out, and I put my hands in the air. “Single ladies put your hands in the air. Bogotá put your hands in the air.” And I, with the rest of the crowd, just kept my hands up, up in the air clasping my "No To Kidnapping" flag for a while.
Suffering: I’m not good at it, but sometimes my aversion to crisis hurts more than experiencing it. When I move toward it, when I board the flight to Colombia, when I ask to hold the soldier’s loaded gun, spend the night with the undertaker, or run a race — no matter how under prepared I think I am — I suddenly feel like I’m living right. Sometimes when I do things I’m scared of I feel less wounded, more empathetic, and crisis for a moment does feel like magic. • 29 August 2007
When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Her column Emily's World appears on The Smart Set weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by author.