Chasing the Big Bad Wolf

April 7, 2011

El Porton, Bogotá, Colombia

3:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Notable Matter:  Foreign animal head (oxen?), canteen, horseshoe and bull fighting paraphernalia above bar.

Describing a dive bar to someone living outside of the U.S. is difficult. Not because class division doesn’t exist – it does – but because independent retailers and restaurants are the norm, not the exception. A dive bar in the U.S. is a neighborhood bar everywhere else. Like our dive bars, they tend to be dark, lack windows and fill with interesting characters but they’re not competing with chain restaurants and flashy facades so they don’t slide into the category of slightly sketchy.

It’s no secret that Americans fear Colombia. The only thing we know of it is drugs and violence. Thanks to U.S. intervention, again, in Colombian policy and the acceleration of Mexican cartels, Americans view Colombia more favorably than before but when compared to what we’re comfortable with – large, shiny, safe, new things – it remains a dive country.

I wasn’t afraid to travel to Colombia but I didn’t want to go to a dive bar alone. I could handle the unknown city, but feared the unknown bar. I thought I might get kidnapped, which is not only stupid but extremely egotistical as there’s nothing about me or my life that would be of any value to a kidnapper in Colombia or anywhere else.

I planned to travel to the south side of the city, an expansive mass exiled from all tourist maps, with some natives to check out some dives as described by me and interpreted by them, but those plans fell through. I almost used this, two attempted purse snatchings and a small run in with the police as an excuse to can the Colombian dive bar experience but then I would have lost to fear and we can’t have that.

Toe First

I walk past El Porton, a small white building with a large door blocking the crooked hole serving as an entrance, and grab a safe lunch special at an American looking French sounding restaurant. When I leave, I give myself a pep talk. I’m on a side street in the middle of the city. I’m tired of being on guard 24/7 and weighing my commitment to church and alcohol. Is it more important to follow through on the blog or remain sober for the three mile walk home?

El Porton is across the street from an old bull fighting stadium, one I wouldn’t have gotten into if I hadn’t poked my head through a crack in the door and grabbed the attention of a police officer. One I wouldn’t have had to myself if I’d snubbed my curiosity. I remind myself Bogota is a city, that as long as I respect it I’ll be OK. I walk into El Porton.

I fall into the bar because like the rest of the country, the steps are surprising and uneven. The tables are white, plastic, covered with red and white checked table cloths. The table numbers are written on the white wall in black marker or crayon. The room is long. A young woman comes from the back to take my order. I assume it’s a family business. Mom follows the girl and yells to dad when I ask if I can take pictures. For some reason I obtain manners in foreign countries that I don’t have at home.

The walls are sparse, signed bullfighting photographs with curled edges huddle near the door and behind the bar. The family doesn’t understand why I’m here but we don’t talk so it doesn’t matter anyway. I stare at a poster. Looks like a harmonica man is coming to town. I watch the military or the police or some other protective force patrol the street outside the bar. These protectors are everywhere, including the parks where drugs are sold. I wonder what, exactly, makes people feel safe.

Fear is necessary response, but a wasted emotion. I wish more people would challenge fear of the unknown. It would be great if we examined what we fear before moving onto what we know. It’s interesting to think what would happen if church goers and administrators had to talk to atheists, Buddhists, etc. before studying the Bible.

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