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.

Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Lourdes, Bogota, Colombia

10:30 a.m. to 11:00ish a.m.

Chosen because…easier to find than the grocery store.

Bums. Old women. Volunteers. Pigeons, thousands of pigeons. Shoe shiners. Teenagers. Assholes. The Iglesia Nuestra Senora de Lourdes in Bogota, Colombia sits in the middle of the city and people and animals, including the rat fink pigeons, move around it. If religion is supposed to be a life fixture, this is exactly what it should look like – a quiet, stable entity a person walks through when she needs it and past when she doesn’t.

I was in Bogota and am now in London because I’m interested in Bogota. And London. Respectively. Bogota was there and so was I. This type of collision is endemic of my life. I’m also fascinated with Central and South America though Colombians don’t consider my favorite country – Argentina – part of South America. Apparently it’s too European. Do dogs releive themselves on sidewalks in Paris?

I wander to mass after two unsuccessful trips to the grocery store. It’s around the corner but I don’t undersand directions in any language so I walk around the neighborhood until I tire of right turns and venture left outside my door, find the grocery store (needed cash) and Lourdes square (pastry, chronic coffee, people watching). Traveling is wonderful if not exhausting and overwhelming.

Bogota is fairly easy to navigate once you accept the fact that one in four streets are marked. Though tired and annoyed, I don’t turn to the Big Guy for help. I eat a pastry instead, accidently elbow the waitress in the crotch. Though embarrassing, this dislodges my mental block and I start seeing Bogota. The toothless trashman; the rows of shoe shiners polishing wing tips, heels and workboots; the seemingly headless homeless man on a bench; the teenagers vacuuming eachother’s necks with their mouths; the man on an ice cream cart in the middle of the square dinging a bell he’ll tap for the next eight hours; the man using a fruit vendor’s macheette to trim his belt. These things. All marvelous and so much more appealing than the dirty streets and broken cobble stones I saw before, the grocery story I didn’t.

A man hands me a brochure. Shiny. The paper equivalent of the tacky shrines constructed in random places all over the city – bus stops, street corners, malls. I don’t understand a word he says, walk into the church. He follows, whistles at me, tries to jam a crucifix in my hand. I refuse, hope he’ll quiet since mass is occurring. He rips the paper out of my hand, yells at me and leaves.

I can’t focus on mass. I’m overstimulated, which is one of the most distracting, besutiful things about traveling. I could focus on the church but that’s not the way my mind works. I can’t pull my eyes from the woman in front of me. She dressed herself according to color completely disregarding texture, content to let corduroy, plaid and striped beiges crisscross her body.

Even though concentration is impossible, I feel everything. I stand. I repeat the Lord’s prayer, something I learned when I was a child. I watch faces, feel memories, loath the contact point between butt bone and pew.

When I leave the trashman is gone. The ice cream man remains. The pigeons crapping along the right side of the church are now on the left, ceding to the “Done sangre regale esperanza de vida” blood donation tent. I consider released my blood into a bag but I’ve had the foreign needle experience and decide against it. Besides, if religion is like the churches in which it’s preached, the opportunity will always be there. Right?

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