Chapter 18


1991-01-28, Rio Amazonas

Caribbean Nights

Two days till War! The usual headlines in the papers of Guerrilla attacks, murders, assassinations and car-bombs in Columbia are quickly being upended by the Macho global urgency in the Persian Gulf. Washington's Wonder-Boy, George Bush, versus the Tiger of Tehran, Saddam Hussein.

I have something else on my mind as I am being 'hit-up' by a local tour guide for the 'Finest Sightseeing Tour ever in the History of Cartagena!'

Another seaport town. In many ways it reminds me of Belize City. There is always a hustle going on. "Meester! Find you a good hotel, a girl, Coke, Emeralds! Whatever you want!!"

I want a nice clean quiet hotel where I can catch a few hours sleep without being robbed.

A mixture of old colonial seaport fortress and contemporary condominium. Cartagena basks in the humid sweat of fresh Ceviche-filled bronze bodies gleaming on the sand like naked lobsters dipped in butter waiting to be devoured.

More and more I notice that I am entranced by the Caribbean. Regardless of the country, caribbean towns are a mixture of humanity heavily influenced by a history of African settlers. It's in the music, the food, the movement, the skin, the sweat. It's the rhythm.

Some days I walk the stone streets of the old city, admiring the architecture, crumbling remnants of the fortress that once surrounded this legendary shipping outpost, experiencing the hustle of port city commerce. At night I visit small dark hazy bars illuminated by one or two fading yellow bulbs for a beer and fresh seafood that is abundantly available.

Sitting at an outdoor restaurant drinking Cafe en Leche, coffee with warm milk, a middle-aged shopkeeper provides political commentary so consistently Columbian, on the Gulf crisis:

"Iraq must be stopped, they have no right going into a smaller, more vulnerable country. That Saddam is a fat belligerent. Even if it takes the U.S. to stop them it must be done. However, here in South America, the U.S. is considered El Pulpo, 'The Octopus', putting its fingers in everybody's business!"

Claro! Exactamente!

Other days just lying on the beach, soaking rays, or walking the strip in Boca Grande, the new part of Cartagena. My Columbian friend, Eduardo the Artist, grins like a fox while imploring, "Boca is Miami Beach, Amigo, go and visit! All the action you want, you can find!" It does have that pinkish Don Johnson look.

Among my new amigos, Vicente and Eduardo, I finally break down and toot some of Columbia's Premier Export. Two grams costs ten U.S. dollars. The Columbians are intent on my education.

Vicente, the connoisseur, takes some powder casually between his fingers. Rolling his fingers together, the powder disappears. He urges me to do the same. This guy is one Loco Hombre! This is expensive stuff! He treats the bag like it's grains of sand from the beach!

Taking a pinch ever so gently between my fingers I feel the texture, like fine silk. No granules, no rocks. Just a smooth slide like a close shave. He says this is Calino. Made by the Cali Cartel and usually a higher quality than the product from Medellin.

Next he takes out a small key, dips it in the bag, brings out just a shake on the end of the key and takes a snort. Passing the bag, I help myself to a key thinking I must really do a line to feel anything at all. This is not even enough to tingle my nostrils.

Eduardo after a shot, explains in a serious way, "Cocaine should not be done every day. Maybe once a week or once a month. Never on the same day. Do not allow a dependency to develop."

Eduardo tells me, with a grimace of disdain across his smooth bearded features, that gringos in the U.S. really abuse the product.

"There is no need to lay out six-inch lines. That is such an American trip. You people overdo everything. You do not need to constantly dip in. Once is enough."

I do not go to the bag again for 45 minutes.

I can feel it now, coursing through my body, that urgent electricity, at times like a sexual arousal. Our discussions become more animated. This is familiar territory and different. It's smoother. Not so much the amphetamine speedy effect that keeps you jumping off your seat and grinding jaws to powder.

I rub some on my lips and tongue. Another no-no. Some habits die hard.

Vicente, with the air of Columbian authority criticizes, "Amigo, you do not eat the powder! It is only for the nose. Low class junkies and gringos put it in their mouths."

Sipping a glass of water, Eduardo offers me a beer. He and Vicente suggest that I should drink beer. I have a resistance to mixing alchohol with other substances. Feel it takes something away, and don't care for the alcohol influence.

Eduardo hammers, "Beer is good, it cleans the system, makes you piss and mediates the speedy effects of the drug. It's not about getting drunk, just maintaining and taking care of the body." After an hour I give in and tip the bottle. When in Rome .....

Sitting around the house, walking the beach feeling those warm ocean breezes and talking about the U.S. police involvement here in Columbia, how the natives feel about their country being dictated to by a foreign power.

Slurping cerveza, eating fried beans and rice and listening to Vicente explain how insignificant the money is that the Indigenous make growing alternative crops to Coca, literally 1/10 the money they can make growing Coca.

Listening to Latin Jazz, tooting more keys and talking about Eduardo's jungle paintings, his Shamanic visions translated onto canvas.

Around 4 a.m. I get up to leave. I have been up most of the night, started tooting in the early evening and talking like one of those sports announcers at the football games.

I'm feeling a strong buzz like I could stay up all night and most of the next day. I also know that sleep is necessary.

Vicente suggests I drink milk, that it helps cut the effects and allows sleep.

Need to catch a bus in the early morning for Bogota. Taking a few hits to get started, I carry the bag with 3/4 gram left into the bathroom, and with a lot of reluctance and resignation, flush it down the toilet.

Doing the Salsa Shake

I had imagined for a long time Medellin was a backward farm town, dirt roads and Hitchin' Posts for local Hombres to anchor their horses just like the cowboys in all those Westerns. In fact, I had a fantasy that Medellin was just that, a wild-west cowboy town full of silver spurs, six-guns and silver bullets and gobs of Cocaine money.

Instead it is a large, sprawling city, modern high-rises and mirrored glass windows, a new high-speed Monorail system under construction. A new bank on every corner. And gobs of Cocaine money.

A Columbian friend explains over a glass of Aguardiente, the high-octane Columbian drink made from sugarcane, while sitting in the lobby of the hotel, "Citizens in this city have invested well. Much of the illicit money has been turned into legitimate business. The city has prospered."

It is nothing like I imagined.

Another man boasts after a shot of Aguardiente, "Medellin is different from Bogota or other Columbian cities. People here have a more laissez-faire attitude and encourage free enterprise."

The Police station is a few blocks from my hotel. Metal barrels filled with sand and cement surround every entrance to the building. The windows are fully barred with heavy-gauge steel. Holes torn from the walls by bullets and bombs are evident, and never fully go through the fortress-like construction.

Police of course, carry the always handy Uzi machine gun. It's the gun of choice among well-armed Columbianos. They wear those stylish armored jackets everywhere, as well as helmets and visors. Looks more like full-on warfare equipment than just a local constabulary.

They and the shop owners continue to warn me not to walk around the town center at night. It is Muy Peligroso! After visiting other areas, I do it anyway. It's where the action is.

I'm beginning to wonder what the term third world means. All the cities in Columbia's portion of the Andean Cordilleras are relatively modern. High-tech high-rises, people driving BMW's and Mercedes. Medellin is building an advanced Monorail Transportation system. Bogota is awash with Banks on every street. Prosperity in a capitalistic, materialistic, sense is everywhere.

Yes, there is still Selva, jungle. And in the U.S. there is still the Ozarks and Big Sur.

Remembering a discussion in Guatemala between a native and an American Graduate student in International Affairs leaves me even more confused. The student asked, "Can you spell Hegemony?"

This is not the jungle, and it is far more advanced than I had imagined. I'm going to Cartagena to catch some rays.

This Is No Bull

A pungent aroma of warm blood fills the arena, a bloodthirsty crowd is demanding more, "Kill the Bull, Kill the Bull!"

At the far end a tired and angry animal gathers all his remaining juice for one last stampede. Dripping froth from a tongue hanging heavy with fatigue. Red splashes down his sides, a slow cascade that won't stop gushing from the three flag draped lances hooked into flesh, sapping his power.

The sound of hooves hammering the ground, and a snort erupt from the animal's sweat lined face as he eyes the center of the ring with two piercing bottomless eyes filled with savage instinctuality.

The Gladiator stands in sequined blue tights, black hat and mocking stare, like a pure dancer, in absolute stillness. Awaiting the music to begin, he challenges the bull with his red cape. Hidden within its folds, the beasts demise.

A flash of red silk, gasp from the crowd and a sudden black avalanche of boggling force as the Bull explodes toward his destiny ...........

I have been chasing Torros all through Columbia, with no success. Another one of my dismal failures in the Emerald Empire.

It's the season of Bull Fights. In city after city large signs and posters announce the events. After reading Hemingway's description of the event in Pomplona, Spain, I've wanted to catch the action firsthand, and have continually had the misfortune of arriving in a city shortly after the fights or much too early.

Bullfights to Columbians are what Carnival is to Brazilians.

Catching a full-day bus from Cartagena to Bogota, only three body searches en route, I arrive at noon on Sunday. I quickly find a hotel and a bite to eat and am on the streets. Not far away, in El Centro is the Plaza de Torros, off Carrera Septima. The stadium is a classic Moorish design.

The crowds of well dressed Columbianos outside, all in tight starched and creased jeans and expensive leather jackets, like milling hawks mad to enter the gates and surrender to the action. Boda Bags filled with sweet wine shouldered across all that black expensive hide. Dancing and shouting in their colorful Panama hats and shades, wolf-grins and a dripping blood-lust that is interpreted as sport.

At the ticket window. "Yes, we have good seats!" I buy a ticket for a seat 14 rows up from the ring. At 3:30, the action begins. I've done it!

A pavilion, bounded on two sides by spires. The outside is red brick. Trumpeters are standing on the platforms outside, heralding the event.

Inside, in a balcony alcove, the Presidente of the Arena signals the event to begin. It's 3:35. Musica fills the ring. Pomp and Circumstance are de rigueur for this fete among fetes. Trumpets blare as the participants parade onto Center Stage.

Matadors, as they enter the arena, turn toward the Presidente, salute him, taking their black caps shaped like bulls ears into their hands, bowing low.

Next, a host of Picadors followed by two Caballeros riding blindfolded horses dressed in armor. The clean-up crew is last, leading a chariot drawn by three donkeys. The costumes are detailed, tight, brightly sequined. A bloody and beautiful spectacle that reminds me of ritualistic slaughter transformed to high art.

All leave the ring save for one Matador and his attendant Picadors. The ring is fenced in heavy wood. Inside, against the sides are six free-standing barricades for the Picadors. A door opens from one side, out rushes the first bull.

Torro spots Picadors pink cape and immediately charges. A sudden swirl of color, the Bull rushes past, stops and turns. Another charge, horns low. A quick pirouette, near miss that you can feel sitting well protected in the stands and the crowd erupts with a cacophony of Oles.

The Picador is near a barricade now as the bull charges yet again. The man steps behind the heavy wood as the Bull rams helplessly against the barrier, sending a roll of thunder through the arena.

Matador, flourishing a red cape taunts the animal, waving the provocative flag, charging and coercing with his voice. Another charge as the enraged beast focuses his horns on the target. More Oles from the crowd. One more Picador works the Bull.

"From the day they are born the bulls never even see a human to spar with before entering the ring. They only attack cows until the day they are summoned for combat." The black leather jacket next to me informs and adds, "It is terrible what is happening in the Gulf. All that war, all that bloodshed. Yet it is necessary. Freedom must be protected."

There is Ritual in this. The Matador controls the action inside the ring. He summons the two Caballeros. They enter on blindfolded horses.

The enraged Bull charges one, rams into the chain-mail armored side of the horse, goring the plate helplessly with his horns and is speared in the back by a lance. This is savagely beautiful Blood-Sport, and it is in the blood of the Columbians.

The Matador summons two Picadors. They each have two colored stakes. One after the other they face-off with the bull. Torro rushes, they rush, step aside and stab the stakes into the back of the animal.

The Black Leather next to me explains, as he holds a boda-bag a foot away from his open mouth and a stream of red juice cascades with the accuracy of a radar directed missile through the air, that the stakes weaken the Bull.

The Matador is using his cape with a ballet-like flourish; he taunts, coerces, cajoles the tiring animal. The term Matador comes from the word Matar, Death. A Death-Dealer! He takes a sword from a handler.

Man and Bull square-off. Matador raises the sword above his head, sights the Bull at eye level. The Bull digs in with front legs, snorts and charges. The Matador digs in, blade raised high and charges. A slight sidestep, metal flashes forward. The blade slipping between the shoulders and into the Heart.

The Bull is stunned. He staggers, the blade deep to the hilt. Blood is pouring down the Bull's tongue, as he slowly begins to crumble. By the time he falls sideways, he is dead. Muerto.

Three Matadors fight six bulls today. The clean-up crew with the carriage and donkeys enter the ring, hoist a carcass onto the sling and drag it away. Spectators raise boda-bags; streams of wine unerringly pour into open mouths. The carcass is removed and the crowd chants for the next round.

Score for the day: Matadors - 6, Bulls - 0.

Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman

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