Colombia – land of magical realism and unreal cruelty. The weather is unbelievably unpredictable here in the Andes, where the brightest day can become shrouded in Stygian thunderclouds quicker than a cut bleeds.
Most Sundays before the lock-down came we would descend the mountain to the local panaderia for breakfast, sitting at the patio out front dipping buñuelos in our coffee while the children drank hot chocolate.
Opposite the panaderia is a bullet-riddled mural of the jaguar goddess Ixchel, stalking through a field of maize beneath a Mayan sun. Follow her wall and you get to the local militia base. The recruits standing guard look painfully young and I worry about my sons getting drafted when they turn 18. Keeping my lads out of the army and away from the murderous conflict raging in the jungle is paramount.
The sentries are a good barometer of the national mood. During the unrest last year they stood in full kit – helmets, ballistic-proof vests and AK-47s clenched with white knuckles, accessorised with a hostile glare. When the trouble settled back into an uneasy peace, the soldiers discarded the heavy vests and helmets, wearing caps, their guns slung casually over their shoulders as they lounged about eating ice-cream, nodding to passers-by. Now the virus has ramped up the tension again, the helmets are back on as the soldiers search passing cars, guns at the ready.
Despite the sentry towers looming over the mural, blood-red graffiti protesting the death of a demonstrator in Bogota wounds Ixchel’s flank. A collision of ancient and modern – sacrifice, blood, beauty, Colombia!
Busy Sundays at the panaderia were a magnet for birds, attracted by the bread. The omnipresent stray dogs kept the local cats away, unknowingly creating a sanctuary for their feathered friends. Vivid yellow finches, their synchronised digital cheeping like a bank of vintage computers, accompanied the bacchanal whistling of scarlet flycatchers. Dwarf parrots and pigeons with rose-pink bibs brought their own hues to the multi-coloured flock. Their music was the song of life, full of joy at the miracle of their fragile existence.
Other diners were always friendly, proud of their city and eager to share information about the best places to go and where to avoid. Living in Colombia you learn to enjoy the moment and not to overthink. Life can change as fast as the elusive weather, which I can never get a handle on. Reading the news it’s hard not to wallow in Grand Guignol. At times it’s a struggle to reconcile these warm and welcoming people with the death squads and endless atrocities of the narco wars.
Before covid-19, once we finished breakfast we would catch a bus to visit my wife’s parents on the other side of the city. One of the cruellest things about this virus and the subsequent quarantine is the enforced separation of millions of grandparents from their grandchildren. The damage to society is much deeper than economic, the wisdom and love the older generation passes on to the younger is priceless. Every month children lose this connection during their formative years impoverishes all of us. Family is all in Colombia. My wife knows the birthdays of more than 30 members of her family – nephews, nieces, aunts, cousins, grandparents – she can reel them off without hesitation.
Sunday is a welcome break from home-schooling and gives Marcela a chance to catch up with her sisters in Bogota. We are lucky to live in the mountains. Bogota was a challenging place to live in more prosperous days but now, since the outbreak, life for many in the capital has degenerated into a daily battle for survival. Fear of the unknown, abject poverty and the certainty there’s little help from the government on the way feed into a mass hysteria that manifests itself in sickening acts of barbarity.
Competition for already limited resources has become increasingly cut-throat. So has the fear. Attacks on doctors and nurses have become alarmingly frequent in the capital. First came the stories of healthcare workers being dragged off buses and beaten. Then came the story of a nurse hacked to death by a knife-wielding mob of tenants from the building where she lived, scared she might infect them with the virus. This last atrocity took place close enough to our family in Bogota to be worrying.
As my wife chats with her sister on speaker-phone I hear a determined little voice in the background say: “Donde esta mi padrino?” (“Where is my godfather?”)
“Hola Mati, cómo estas?” I ask. Five-year-old Mati is our nephew and my godson. One or twice a week we have a chat. “Estas ayudando a tu mama en casa, debes ser un buen nino.” Or: “Cual es tu jugete favorito ahijado?”
My enquiry is familiar and rehearsed. After three years of total immersion and weekly Spanish lessons my pronunciation is still frequently incomprehensible. Going to our local shop on my own is a comedy of errors, the proprietor visibly flinching at the prospect of another awkward linguistic misunderstanding.
My vocabulary isn’t the issue. For example, I know the Spanish for onion is cebolla but after constantly repeating the word I was met by blank stares. I couldn’t see the onions anywhere so I tried miming slicing an onion and crying. The owner stared at me with concern before offering me a six-pack of beer. I took the beers and went home.
The next day Marcela informed me the storekeeper misinterpreted my ‘crying-as-I-slice-onions’ routine as ‘I am depressed and thinking of cutting my wrists’. Understandably – and not unreasonably – he’d assumed beer was the solution.
My chat with Mati ends as it always does as he asks when I’m coming to Bogota to see him. As always, I promise him as soon as the quarantine is over. Juan scowls at me as I give Mati my love and hang up. I feel like a man who has just been caught on the phone to his mistress. Juan and I are very close and he gets jealous when I talk to Mati.
My sons and I communicate in Spanglish, our own mangled hybrid of English, Spanish, singing, belching and grunting. A few months earlier Juan abandoned language altogether, communicating almost exclusively for weeks by blowing in a recorder. Watching Wrestlemania was different this year with its empty arenas. Juan displayed both his approval and frustration by tooting his recorder in my ear for three and a half hours. So I bought a second recorder to duet with him.
Music is magic, being able to play well enough to lose yourself in the flow is one of the most transcendental things in life. I want my sons to experience this deep joy. My wife and I both love metal – Slayer, Anthrax, Motorhead, Maiden, Priest, Body Count, Metallica – balls-to-the-wall thrash. Music transcends language, it’s the most potent tool against hate. It’s harder to hate someone if you understand them. Rappers like Ice-T opened my mind to the reality of being African-American and the alienation that grows like a cancer when you live with constant racism.
Working with Libyan musicians on Stronger Than Bullets I learned about real life in Benghazi. If you want to know what Muslims in the Middle East are really like, listen to some Iranian punk or Libyan hip-hop instead of marinating your brain in the toxic Islamophobia that’s poisoning Europe. The magic of hip-hop and punk is the do-it-yourself attitude – don’t be a spectator, make your own damn music.
Another lock-down Sunday crawls to a close, the tangerine sunset washing over the mountains. Faster than you can say “shark”, the sky darkens, thunderheads boiling over the mountain like an ink-cloud. A flash rends the heavens, Loki the fleet-footed god of lightning. Moments later I hear the mighty rumble of thunder as Thor wields mighty Mjolnir, forever pursuing the trickster god across the storming heavens. I turn off the lights and lie in bed, watching avatars of the gods battle above the mountain peaks until the rising tide of slumber carries me away.