August 18, 2010

The House on Uku Pacha Street

The following text is something I recorded in my journal while I was in Colombia and I typed it up upon returning to the US (and redacted the names of people I know who are in it). Needless to say, I didn't sleep well that night after writing down what you are about to read. I enjoyed Colombia immensely and look forward to returning, but this narrative shows some of the darker side of my move to Colombia. Nothing in this experience is without meaning (though much of it is buried) and it is true on a level that most nonfiction stories are not. If you understand what happened to me here in this story, you will understand my move to Colombia and my feelings about it.

The accompanying graphic is a photo that I took of a painting that hangs in the Botero museum in Bogotá. The title of the piece is Conversation and the painter is the German George Grosz. The version here is rather small, but the detail in the original photo shows some very sinister looking characters onto whom the viewer may project any manner of nefarious conversation. When I thought back to that night, this was the photo that best captured the sense of sinister designs buried beneath the surface and figures protruding from an inner (psychological) darkness. Well, without further ado, here is the text I have been introducing:

Tonight Sr. M. wasn’t available to drive me back to the apartment here, so I left my camera and wallet in A’s room and began to walk back. It was sometime after eleven when I left her house. This is a good neighborhood though, and I feel quite safe here. But something happened tonight that changes that opinion, though I do feel safe, in the conventional sense, I feel a profound sense of the uncanny when I think back over what happened to me between A’s house and here (as I write these words in my apartment). When I first arrived, about two weeks ago, I felt as if I were in a dream. Whether I was the dreamer or just a character in the dream of another, I couldn’t tell, but the sensation of unreality was overwhelming. I can’t quite explain why, because I have felt tropical weather before, I had already been in Bogotá for several says, and small-town Costa Rica or the suburbs of San José aren’t so terribly different from what I have seen of Santa Marta. But actually being here, in Santa Marta, was a singular and incomprehensible sense of being in a dream state, like I had never felt before—until tonight, that is—and which compels me to record tonight’s “events”, if I can even call them that.

I had been walking back to the apartment when I decided to take an extra turn. I can’t say why, beyond just the simple fact that I felt compelled to wander. I carried nothing of value to interest thieves though and I’m not an easy target for any lightly armed thief (or group of them). I’ve come out on top of several muggings and “knife fights” and though I don’t want to lose any more blood, the thought doesn’t scare me nearly as much as it should. I feel confident in most places, and more so here. So when the urge struck me, I turned to the right and then turned again and again, until I had begun to take random turns and wander the streets in the warm night air. There was no chill in the air tonight (as I’m sure there isn’t now, as I write this) and that fact only added to the dreamlike unreality of what happened to me next.

The first shock that I had was when I noticed two animals on the sidewalk in front of me, exposed to the light while the rest of the street seemed to be in shadow. It was a cat and a dog and the dog, a small breed (I don’t know much about dog breeds) was furiously copulating with the cat. I could hear the dog panting and the sound seemed almost as if it were amplified. It thrust itself into the cat with a rhythmic violence that trapped my eye for several seconds longer than was necessary. I was startled from my voyeuristic trance by a yowl from the cat that sounded frighteningly like that of a small child crying out in pain and anguish. My flesh crawled and my breath caught in my throat, as it is again now, on this warm tropical night. A chill ran down my spine as the cat’s eyes suddenly shined in the light and it let out another cry. I was suddenly aware of how deserted the streets were at that moment and how alone I felt. The streets seemed darker there than on my normal route home. I crossed the street to avoid the cat and dog that sounded, for all the world, like a child being tortured and crying out in pain.

No more than ten meters farther down the street and I began to hear voices coming from one of the houses. That fact was nothing remarkable by itself but the fact that the voices were in unaccented English was astonishing. I have not heard any such English since I bumped into the English teacher in Bogotá, almost two weeks ago. It was difficult to make out what exactly was being said, but I could discern maybe half a dozen voices inside the house. The other gate was open, as was the door to the house. Were they having a party? Why were there Americans here, in the middle of this quiet neighborhood in Santa Marta? I stopped walking and just listened in the street to those eerily familiar tones and snatches of phrases from my native tongue. I stood in the street and strained to understand what was being said, but it was impossible and I could only pick up words or phrases here and there. I moved closer to the gate, hoping I could hear better and understand what was happening. I can remember thinking, strangely enough, about the differences between the sound of English and the sound of Spanish. It is as though each language, and each dialect and subdialect of each language, has its own flavor. Yes, I thought of it as a flavor in that moment, and the metaphor seems just as appropriate now, hours later. In this case, it was the flavor of home and just as we never forget our mother’s cooking and will always long for a few dishes she made, so too I was caught by my desire to hear these English words. But also like a flavor, the effect of this conversation was intoxicating, almost like a narcotic. When I heard a voice inside the house call me by name and ask me inside, also in perfect and neutral English, I responded by walking into the shadowed interior, still unable to see who had spoken.

The house had high ceilings that were hidden in a shadow, as were the interiors of several rooms that I passed on my way deeper into the house. I turned several times as I tried to follow the source of the English words that grew almost imperceptibly louder as I moved deeper into the house, winding my way through its maze of corridors. I was no longer sure that I could find my way out again, and I wasn’t sure of which of the doors behind me I had passed through originally. It was at that moment that I found myself in a room bathed in deep shadow into which my eyes strained to see figures seated in a loose arrangement around the edge, near what must have been the walls. The sense of being in a dream intensified yet more. I honestly could not believe that what I was experiencing was real and I felt almost certain that I had walked into a dream, somehow, and that I was already home in my apartment. That belief is in doubt now though as I lie here recording my memory of the events of earlier tonight. How could it have been a dream if I am here now, awake, writing all this down?

There were multiple conversations occurring all at once, intersecting, overlapping, breaking apart and crashing into one another again, like the ripples from stones dropped into still water. I was at a disadvantage for having arrived late and not having been previously acquainted with the characters. To my right, two young men and a young woman talked about hiring a sicario to kill someone in Bogotá and this somehow intermingled with a discussion of the indigent population of Medellín. The financial consequences of the political rift with Venezuela washed over me from the front and this broke upon the shores of a disagreement between a young woman who thought that the Chávez, though a petty dictator in his own right, had value as a South American antipode to US influence while a young man thought that this opposition was counter to the interests of Colombia and that any project for unity was bound to fail if it was based, as its core principle, on opposing the US. From the left came a long and complicated explanation of a Catholic ritual, the veneration of saints, the counting of rosary beads and the eating of the flesh of a god then mixed with voices on the right who were again talking about a murder. Had it happened already? Was it someone they knew or were they describing a news story? The descriptions seemed somehow too vivid for the account to be secondhand and the bodily mutilation of the victim crossed and mixed with the bizarre Catholic ritual that now seemed more pagan than Christian and from the deep shadow in front of me in the room came a thread of the conversation that seemed to suggest that the natives who lived in Santa Marta before the Spanish arrived knew of a secret that is carried in the blood. The blood is the inspiration of the red that Chávez has taken for his coat of arms, as it was of the Communists of Lenin’s era and it is the blood that runs in the jungle in the “Red Zone” in the south of Colombia and it is the wine that becomes blood at the Catholic mass and the mutilated man in Bogotá bleeds into the street, his perforated body bleeding from deep within. The shadows are suffocating, but I imagine that I can smell blood. At first it is more like the faint suggestion of blood but soon I am overcome by the smell of blood, as if there were rivers of it running around my feet and clouds were floating in the air around me, loaded with red droplets of liquid life.

There was a woman standing behind me and she pressed herself lightly against me as she grasped my forearm from behind. She was tall, very tall, and I had the impression that she was unnaturally thin. She leaned in close to me and whispered into my ear from behind. She told me that I was very lost, very lost indeed, and that I would not make it out of this labyrinth alive. I remained perfectly still. I was not certain if she was referring to the house or some other labyrinth. I asked simply, “Where am I?” and she again whispered into my ear from behind. She told me I had made this place. She told me that there was only one way out. I turned to face her. She was taller than any Colombian I had seen in Santa Marta and incredibly thin, like a vision of starvation. Her face was hidden partially in shadow. She took my hand and I let her. She pulled my hand to her and I touched her hips. There was no flesh there, only bone. Just dry, rough bone where flesh should have been. At that moment, I imagined that her face, still hidden in shadow was that of a skull. I looked for her eyes but found only empty blackness.

The voices behind me in the darkened room were no longer conversing and I could hear just short, clipped phrases and single words, each more unsettling than the last. Profanities, curses, vulgarities, mutilated genitals, viscera, eyes gouged out, maggots, shit covered wounds, a sharp blade across the throat, poison in the brain. The air was suddenly colder and I quickly pulled my hand back from the boney hips of the tall woman, just as one might pull back from a hot stove. The room was cold now. So cold. I knew I had to get out but I didn’t know how. I rushed past the woman and through the first open door. I hurried down a corridor and took another door which was open and the air was warmer. I followed the warm air closer to the exit, turning again and again and choosing again the warmer of the doorways until at last I was outside in the warm night air, but the gate was closed. Running to it, I found the key still in the lock. It turned and I frantically opened the locking mechanism and the gate. I didn’t look back until I had shut the gate behind me, but when I did I saw only a darkened house, like any other on the street. The feeling of dreaming, of the unreal, was beginning to fade but much of it still remains even now as I pen my recollections of the events of tonight.

Did I really experience what I remember so vividly or was it some trick of the mind? Did I stumble into some strange gathering that I simply misinterpreted and misunderstood or was it something else entirely? I can only assert that I have no idea what the truth of the matter is and can only record the events as accurately as I remember them, no matter how unreal they may appear.

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