There is something quite special, when waking in another bed. Even more special waking in another city. I wake in Chapinero, a pretty nice place. It is one of the most central neighborhoods in Bogotá, Colombia.
I generally try to avoid things that are what others call turista. It doesn’t quite fit within my ‘self concept’. But most times when traveling it is actually quite difficult to fully avoid. The main drags often overlap with the waypoints I ascribe when searching for vegetarian in a city that eats pork, chicken, and more pork.
“Vegetariano”, I ask. “No”, with a smile.
But, then again, I wouldn’t say there are many things about myself that are entirely signature, besides proper sleeping arrangements and multiple daily meals. Anyway, turista or commercial does not mean without life; sometimes there are real gems.
Café Cultor is a posh bubble of brightness and waving business neighbors; many of whom are heading into a place called Impact HUB. No idea what the place does (though it would be easy enough to Google). People come out often and sit down on the mini Cultor patio. They drink cappuccino, exclusively, and talk about, from the words I pick up, tranquilo, musica, little bits about hermanas, all with some serious pointing and ‘think’ gestures. I’ve come to this little cafe at least ten times; some in the Spring, more in September. Each time I see happy faces enter this Impact HUB.
The cafe has veggie options. And a drink called the Don Augustino. It’s a small Americano with sugar, vanilla bean and ginger. They are a well-known destination for travelers and in general foreigners looking for something Americans would call ‘third-wave’ coffee. And, they certainly have the gooseneck maneuver down.
American-English (or better yet, B.V.E.) R&B and soul play on the sound system. Last Spring, classic rock was playing. The sounds ricochet off the metal container walls. One block away is Carrera 7. It’s one of those unavoidable main drags that runs from the uber touristy La Candelaria district, the one with all the colorful single story buildings that pop up when one actually does use Google. Bright buildings and at least fifty hostels jammed full of Belgians, French, Canadians, Germans & English folk. That is my assumption anyway. I’ve seen enough to assume as much.
Uber is illegal here. I’ve been taking Ubers every night. At night, there are fewer safe areas. I sit in the front seat, sometimes we talk, sometimes we pretend the driver, a male, is my uncle, just in case la policía catches us. He is often middle-aged, he is not always friendly. We do not make eye contact, but he seems nice enough to be my uncle. We cruise. He hums along to American Top 40’s. La policía are always looking for my uncle who drives all of my cousins around town. At some point my uncle and I will turn onto Carrera 7.
Full of cars, motorbikes and short buses, Carrera 7 has lots of stop and go, and then go really fast, and then stop; and then go again. It is wide and always packed. The street is charismatic and most likely a malignant appendage of daily life. The amount of exhaust was a ‘Zen’ moment for me; when the black and violent clouds of smoke poofed up on a light turned green. All the big center city streets here are just like Carrera 7.
I actually did find my zen moments when smiling and making eye contact with the numerous men in uniform, sporting assault rifles. Some women too. There is something zen about a smiling automatic weapon carrier. Their smiles are genuine, and so are mine. That is zen. I feel safe on Carrera 7.
Bomb sniffing, drogas searching golden retrievers posted at the entrance of every mall, banco and municipal building, representative of years of power struggles in Colombia, are literally the cutest contraband busting la policía I’ve ever seen. Besides, of course, the joven automatic toting smilers. These dogs accompany the men in safe areas. Not sure if they make it safe by smiling along with me or by actually finding things, but when the dogs smile I feel safe, even a block away from Carrera 7.
The exhaust too. That is zen. Especially, with English R&B. Did I mention that the coffee at Café Cultor is good. They roast, grow, market and brew all their own beans, or rather cherries, straight from the mountains of Colombia. Each variety is home to different soil acidity and different altitudes. Some, I am sure, are always dew covered, I could best describe the roasted beans as something in between an African peaberry texture and a French roast. I’ve sat beside one of the cafe businessmen, talking to an Indian investor about their beans and their plants. Lots of smiling again. I do recommend their beans though, they make me smile. Café Cultor, look them up.
Everyday, I look up at a backdrop of unattainable mountains. They are hazy and longing, at the edge of at least a two-mile uphill walk. I won’t be walking that full two miles. I once did one mile uphill. I made it to an Italian pizza pie oasis. Fresh focaccia. That was as far as I went that day; fresh herbs in pots were my unattainable mountains. I requested the herbs be cut and placed in hot water, botanica something. Very nice. There is not one day in Bogotá that I do not look up at those two-mile away mountains with longing.
The weather is often cooler than what Google says. I compared my phone results with a wet finger, and I’d argue Google has their wind predictions wrong too. It is always ten farenheit cooler, and five drops in the sky heavier. Café Cultor is fully outdoors. So is Akaira Bendito Açaí, an açaí bowl joint, best known in the States as a superfood bowl. They are both outside, in the same courtyard as Impact HUB. Open air and printed signs that say Salida de Emergencia, next to smiling, açaí eating, assault rifle holding policía. We are all smiling together, here in this courtyard, here at Café Cultor.
What I find, when looking for zen moments, are places like Cultor, as well as La Cava del Puro, which is where I am walking next. It is about two miles away. Two flatish miles. Like Cultor, they make their own product. They roll cigars and package coffee. I recommend their Colombian cigars, not the Cuban counterparts a case over.
Their coffee is lesser known to me. The cigars are light, short, with about a 30-minute burn time, and they can be smoked sitting at a metal bistro table, with espresso, under umbrellas, alongside plants and smiling people. Here at La Cava del Puro, there are smiling people again, and classical music. I usually order espresso with my cigar. I add sugar -I never add sugar – but something about leisure cigar sessions at noon seem to justify emptying the entire green packet into my cup.
After smoking I went to the bathroom leaving my backpack on the patio. When I returned the lady up front, the same lady who brought me a cigar and made my espresso, smiled, and said that she recommended that I do not leave my pack unattended anywhere in Bogotá. I showed her that my phone and money were in my pocket, roughly translating to the fact that my bag had nothing important inside, but that didn’t change her worrisome smile. I do not think it changed her view of no-nothing foreigners either. I smiled to myself afterwards. My bag, with my passport inside, was still there.
I am not quite as close to Carrera 7 this time, sitting at La Cava del Puro. Perhaps five blocks west of the main drag, with prettier everything. Not sure if there are fewer smiles, but something feels like there could be fewer. Maybe it is just the towering glass structures reflecting off the many Koi moats that give a greater sense of emptiness. But, this is an early assessment, and I’d say it is unfair because I am still smiling. And, the smog still wafts from Carrera 7, just like every other place in town.
I am zen.
I couldn’t say the same about the construction workers; young, beautiful and hardened. Many sit at the top of the manholes or against the sidewalk bluffs eating lunch and looking me in the eye with a quizzical stare. I am smiling at heart, though I do not smile when I look back at the workers. The only time I ever see one of these guys smile is during the camaraderie of leaning against each other during break. And, so young. They sit on the ground, on the parts of the tiled sidewalk that were not mopped that morning (by the woman with a mop). I walk on the sidewalk.
These guys are often dressed in blue, dirty, and blue. Similar to the municipal blue street sweepers with their little carts. Kind of matchy matchy, with a strong beauty that emanates from what could be described as ‘unmasked realness’.
They are building another tower in Chapinero. In Zona T and G and Zona Rosa. Another dominating glass structure on the edge of Usaquén. Another tower in Bosque Calderon. Another tower a block from the square, where the so-called ‘not of the people’ President of Colombia took the podium in early Spring. The same melting pot square that welcomes college students, Made in China slinging merchants, pickpockets and la policía and, of course, a few smiling Europeans.
These guys in blue sit on the sidewalk on their breaks. But I’ve seen others sit on the sidewalk too. Every day seems to be a gray, cool, bright haze. Like the mountain tops. Gray, everyday, days are when one sees others on the sidewalk. Darker, more distant. Non smiling people in patterns and wrinkles, who do not speak the language of those who smile.
When the clouds break, their wrinkles seem greater. As if, they’ve gathered them just by sitting beside Carrera 7. But I know better than that. They must sit and gather their wrinkles, just by sitting on that sidewalk. That must also be why they gather those wrinkles and patterns on their clothing.
Most locals where navy, black, gray, beige, jeans, wool scarves, jackets, and dark backpacks, but the distant eyes on the sidewalk, they wear patterns slightly grayed by exhaust. Last March, there was a patterned sidewalk sitter, with no legs. He was leaning against a bed of ferns. He had a paper sign, I couldn’t read it. I also couldn’t count the wrinkles on his face. There was nothing about his face that spoke of frailty. His wrinkles told a different story. He leaned there like a warrior who had been defeated. Fighting a war he never joined. The trees in the bed had signs that catalogued them. The man with no legs, no chair and no smile, leaned beside the trees.
Now in September, I walked down the same street with the beds of ferns. A few trees had been cut down, with laminated R.I.P. notes tagged to each stump, cataloguing each tree.. Nobody was sitting on the sidewalk.
Sections of the city with fewer fern beds, maybe fifteen blocks west of Carrera 7, where black clouds of poof are absorbed by sidewalk sitters and walkers alike, also emanate smiles. When I got a juice from a lady in a tiny white room, she smiled at me. In rough Spanish, I asked her favorite flavor. Tu favorito. She said mixed berry. I wanted lulo. A subtropical fruit indigenous to Colombia and Ecuador, very sour. Not seen in the markets of America. Lulo is my favorite fruit when in Bogotá, not mixed berry. After a pause and another smile, I asked for lulo.
I asked for lulo again in La Porciúncula at a place called Dubai Cafe. The owners, one from Venezuela, the other from Pakistan, dwellers of the world, smiled at me. They have a lulo lassi, comparably as great as the Don Augustino at Café Cultor. They also bring with them, their own version of gulab jamun, a culturally significant dessert that stretches from Persia to Malaysia.
In olden days the base ingredient was something called khoya, basically reduced milk. The contemporary version often uses powdered milk as a substitute. Their recipe, a bit denser, found just a few blocks from Carrera 7, combines milk, powdered milk and some cream. Most places are an open air kind of place, theirs was too.
Tonight I rest my head at a little hotel, with maybe fifteen rooms, full of tiles, low archways, and bright white sheets. It is about ten blocks from Carrera 7. In the morning the storefront merchants selling easels, untreated coat hangers, and religioso icons, roll up their iron curtains.
It is the type of place I will be riding to in an illegal Uber, with my uncle.