Why you should care
Because there are some pieces that never fall into place for you. Accept it.
Our double-prop ATR 72 made its descent into Puerto Asís airport, a dot on the map about one hour east from our destination. Out the window, Monica pointed at the deforestation. Farmers had burned out polygon patches in the earth, eliminating the cedars and oaks that once stood there. The patches were hardly 10 kilometers from the airport.
“Before, when I used to take this flight, I looked out the window and all I saw was green forever,” said Monica.
Then she pointed to a particular scar positioned hundreds of feet below our propeller. It was a little gully with green bushes.
“See that?” she asked. “That’s coca.”
Helmets are illegal here … the lawmen decided that it would be easier to spot an assassin if everyone rode around showing their faces.
Don Uriel picked us up at the airport. His jalopy jolted down a dirt road that threaded through subtropical plains. It’s a land best explained by patches of jerry-rigged explosives, oil rigs and clandestine plots of an ancient Andean shrub, the leaves of which you use to derive cocaine.
Before the peace deal, a lot of this land was all rebel-held territory. Now, a mishmash of crime syndicates run it. Even the Mexicans are here. Think about it this way: Just as the United States’ westward expansion had its notorious Deadwoods and Tombstones, Colombia has its Oritos.
When Don Uriel said there’d be a “mess of white powder” there, and there happened to be southwestern Colombia, I quickly recalled a roster of buddies back home in New York whose heads would have snapped to attention. But the deal was clear: Get to my girlfriend’s hometown, eat river fish stew, hang with family.
Orito is Macondo — the strange, alluring town immortalized in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. You see almond trees shaped like school dresses and flocks of airplane-white birds nesting in a neon green canopy. Mule carts put-put next to Suzuki 150 ccs. It’s a place where the wisdom of abuelas and Turkish telenovelas seems to — and often does — rule above the law.
Three and a half hours later, I was hugging Monica’s waistline on the back of a white Kymco scooter. Helmets are illegal here. What happened is the lawmen decided that it would be easier to spot an assassin if everyone rode around showing their faces. Assassins don’t really ride around Orito anymore as they did 15 years ago, but the people got used to it and no one reversed the policy.
The Blacks and Whites’ Carnival was our raison d’être. Five hundred years ago, slaves under the Spanish crown revolted: Prohibited from even one miserable day off, they demanded a holiday. The Spanish gave them one: Jan. 5. That one sacred day of rest plucked from a hell of forced labor morphed into the carnival of Blacks and Whites.
And Grupo Niche was headlining. In 1978, there was this cat named Jairo Varela from the city of Cali who wanted to stitch together a bunch of boys into a blasting combo. They beat perfect rhythm, blew insane amounts of air through trombones and sang in unimaginable ways with their falsettos. In Latin America, like the Beatles or the Stones, they don’t seem to ever die.
… [M]y girlfriend’s brother carried a weapon: Chivas Regal. … He dribbled shots into my cup 10 or 11 times while Grupo Niche sang.
But we sped down the main drag, and the night turned from petroleum black to a wintery mist. The banana-yellow glow of street lights lifted white dust into a murky suspension, and you could barely see the motorcycles coming at you from the other direction. Was the storm of white powder residue from an industrial accident, the start of biochemical warfare or … could it really be cocaine?
Then, a startling noise. POOF! White powder exited from somewhere close by and erupted in a cloudy puff, hitting us straight in the face. Our motorcycle shook. My 155-pound body lurched forward onto Monica, and then I realized, Uh-oh, she got hit too. But she steadied the motorcycle and we kept going. I wiped my face off. Tasteless. Odorless. Interesting.
It was hard to be sure what that white powder really was, but the next day offered clues: a thick goo stuck to my sandals as I tried to step onto a curb. It had rained the night before, so the powder had turned wet and muddy. Then I spotted an empty bag on the street corner. It read ”cement.”
Still, farm wives wilted chorizo over open coal fires until they were blackened. Folks from the hills around town streamed in with their families to tear salty chicken and pork off pine skewers. National beer itched in jungle humidity. Fortunately, my girlfriend’s brother carried a weapon: Chivas Regal, an 80-proof Scotch whisky. He dribbled shots into my cup 10 or 11 times while Grupo Niche sang over the din. Everyone, even the old folks, danced.
Once Grupo Niche finished, Monica pulled me backstage. She wanted a photograph with one of the lead singers, Yuri Toro. It was 2am, but there was no room for protest. We dodged clouds of white powder, hopped over sticky mud puddles and shouldered through bodies.
We waited. I insisted to Monica she would never get her photograph and that we should go. She ignored me. I told her I couldn’t keep standing. She didn’t budge. I told her I was tired and fed up, and I went to sit down. My back ached. I felt horrible. But she persisted amid the crowd of at least 100 fans who swamped the tour bus.
My confession? I’ve always wanted to be a singer. A front man. There’s jealousy that stings every time I see live music. Like the whiskered German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Language can never adequately render the cosmic symbolism of music,” and that’s a painful truth. Maybe being a foreign correspondent was that next closest thing to rock ’n’ roll. Still, like a soldier’s phantom limb, what hurts is what doesn’t exist.
Minutes went by like sips. Then, from 50 meters away, my girlfriend’s head shot up above the crowd. The singer appeared. A flash from a camera phone burst. White light poured across their smiling faces. It was beautiful. They were happy. And I accepted the fact that it was one of those photographs she had to have and one I would never get.