The path runs down the side of the mountain road to the outskirts of the city. Daily exposure to the Andes does nothing to diminish their vastness. Their magnificence is endless, always changing, bathed in thunder or sun.
Today is bright, painfully high-def. I can see all the way to Peñas Blancas. I feel a shiver in the road and move over on the path as a truck thunders past – an 18-wheel juggernaut straight off a country and western album cover, gleaming chrome with ancient piston rings belching black smoke.
These dinosaurs are omnipresent, wheezing up the steep mountain roads before making up for lost time on the descent. The worn brake pads squeal in protest as they bite but somehow slow the overloaded behemoth just in time to make the bend.
I look over the crash barrier at the concrete and corrugated bungalows below, squatting at the bottom of the bamboo-covered mountain. The narrow alleyways are full of people while others sit on the roof or crowd into backyards. Everyone is in quarantine.
Sound systems compete with barking dogs. You can’t see the chickens but you can hear them, the constant cock-a-doodle of dozens of roosters perturbed by the unprecedented daytime presence of this mass of mankind.
Their avian alarm isn’t misplaced. Food is in short supply and money even shorter. Crow now chickens because you face an uncertain tomorrow. That’s a good lesson. I stop gazing over the edge and move on before I get crushed by a big fucking truck.
Ahead bright lines, vivid like spray paint, cross the road. Red, purple, green. From a distance you would mistake it for graffiti, a rainbow-coloured road crossing. Up close you discover it consists of millions of ants streaming across the road in a mighty insect superhighway.
The trees bordering the road are being stripped by the ant army. The red stream consists of ants coming from their nests on the other side of the road. The purple and green streams are returning workers carrying a piece of leaf or purple blossom like tiny samurai battle banners.
I bend down to watch them. I like ants. Coming from such a self-centred species there’s something miraculous about their silent co-operation. Trucks slash through the ant streams killing hundreds of thousands in seconds but the survivors swarm over the dead and continue their mission.
I wonder if each hive is an ego, selfishly competing with other hives to be the most famous hive of all, with all the absurdity of human ambition. Look at me! I am the greenest leaf on the tree, I am the biggest leaf, I am the last leaf to fall when winter comes. What does the tree think about it all, that’s what I want to know?
Further down the hill the path turns into a paved road. A wall of bamboo blocks the mountains as the air thickens. Breathing through my sweat-drenched mask is hard but I keep it on. The last time I took it off the cops stopped, unnecessary interactions with anxious teenagers toting guns are also best avoided. At least the mask means I’m swallowing fewer insects.
In the days before the virus a walk down the hill would be punctuated by groups of locals buying arepas and gossiping. Everyone used to stop to talk to each other. Now people are scarce, wearing masks, standing apart and ignoring each other in a most un-Colombian way. No-one is taking any chances, the hospital here is small, overrun and expensive. The bank on the edge of town has been shut since the quarantine began. A few branches in the centre remain open as customers form huge queues down the street.
I use the cash machine, angling my body so I can see the street behind me reflected in the screen. The crime rate is lower in the mountains than Bogota but it pays to be wary – try not to use the same bank, don’t have a routine. At least social distancing means it’s easier to spot an attacker coming.
A ragged group of men lie sleeping in front of the bank but their rusted machetes are no cause for alarm. Chopping bamboo and tying it into bundles to sell is the main means of sustenance for the very poor and machetes are as omnipresent as mobile phones.
Ragged clothes, bare feet, xylophone ribcages. These young men aren’t drug addicts or drunks, they’re undernourished and homeless because of poverty. I lived in LA for a decade and Brighton and Edinburgh before that, I know the difference. I give the group 20,000 pesos as I leave, a few bucks that will feed them all if they can find a roadside vendor still operating.
It’s a relief to go out. Under the rules of lock-down we can only leave the apartment once a week – designated by the last number on your state ID. Later my wife and I will go to the supermarket and pretend not to know each other as only one member from each household can enter the store.
I can’t do the shopping alone. My father always said soap was soap and I never evolved beyond that. Even in my native language I find all the varieties of detergent confusing. I’m always forgetting all kinds of Colombian necessities such as sugar cane for the agua de panela my wife and sons drink at breakfast every morning while I drink tea.
Carrying a weeks’ worth of groceries for a family of four back up the mountain takes my donkey strength so my wife and I go together, standing in line for an hour, pretending we don’t know each other in front of the security guards. Inside the supermarket there are more pigeons than usual and less food on the shelves.
I feel like a stalker as I follow Marcela around continuing the pretence we aren’t together. I stick out a bit here in the mountains and some folk look alarmed the first time they see me. An elderly couple look concerned as they see me trailing Marcela down the rice isle. I don’t think the mask helps.
Despite the number of people in the supermarket it is eerily quiet – the jubilant resilience of the national psyche shadowed by fear of the unknown. The walk home with the shopping is uphill all the way. After enforced non-conversation in the supermarket we discuss the ever-rising price of beans and rice before the humidity and incline kill the conversation.
To my relief our building rises over the crest and I quicken my pace as I imagine taking a cold shower and escaping the heat. Then I remember it will be a week until I’m allowed to go outside again. I slow down to look at the vultures floating high above on the thermals like cigarette ash.
Up close, vultures are ugly creatures – bald, clumsy and raucous with scimitar beaks. When they soar overhead, gliding effortlessly on huge wings, they are beautiful and full of grace and majesty. Like everything in life, it’s a matter of perspective.