I’m an early riser – 3am and I’m grinding the sleep out of my eyes ready to work. There is a ‘magic hour’ for writing. That precious period of time when the mind is open and ideas free form and flow before life floods in to drown the creative flame with trivial concerns.
My sons used to have to get up at 5am to arrive at school two hours later. In post-virus Colombia, home-schooling means I don’t have to wake them until 6am. My day starts by evicting a crippled cricket from the kitchen and returning him to the cactus on the balcony. Despite only having one back leg he can still hop and it’s several minutes before I capture him in a glass jar and coax him back to his spiky home.
The cactus has a borehole like a bullet wound from a tiny sniper, the plant and its insect tenant have both seen better days. The cricket settles himself among the spikes before becoming motionless, the little green king of a little green castle.
After an hour of writing I’m back in the kitchen for more coffee. Orange streaks smear upwards beyond the serrated peaks of the Andes. Clouds turn from purple to crimson as I stand on our tiny balcony to soak in the sunrise. Far below the gentle slopes a forest of bamboo floods the bottom of the world. A dark shape hurtles across platinum grass, an eagle circling its own shadow. From this distance the things I thought I’d miss seem small.
Time to wake the kids. I find the big metal jug we use for the agua de panela. Clang! I drop in a brick of sugar cane, the noise triggering a round of barking from the neighbour’s dog. “Put the bloody water in first,” I remind myself as I fill the jug and put it on the stove to boil. A soft kiss on the back of my neck. Marcella joins me in the kitchen and soon the aroma of panela seeps through our home.
The transition to home-schooling hasn’t been without its hiccups. On the first day I walked into the kitchen for a coffee refill and wondered why my wife was frowning and pointing at my less than pristine bathrobe. I realised Juan was in the middle of an online lesson and an entire class of little boys and girls were staring at a tattooed apparition wearing a cordless, coffee-stained robe.
This morning Juan is singing in the shower, his voice muffled by the cavern of falling water. David plays bongo drums on my belly. My boys are irrepressible. Then it’s time for class. The kitchen table is a mosaic of school material – protractors, set squares, notebooks and a bewildering array of worksheets.
The children greet their teachers and fellow pupils online as Marcella and I tag-team between classes. One little girl in Juan’s English class isn’t enjoying the online learning experience and spends most of the hour sobbing into her microphone. Juan’s lesson concludes with five minutes of enthusiastic “choa Juan, choa Maria, choa Ansel…” Everybody saying choa to everyone.
If the eight-year-olds are enchanting, dragging a reluctant David through two hours of English comprehension is less thrilling. For the first time in my life I need glasses, expensive trifocal bullshit. My eyes are fucked from the three years spent writing my first novel – The Angriest Man Alive – available to purchase now. You should consider buying a copy if you dig this blog. No apologies for the plug, a writer has got to eat.
The children spend their break with their faces pressed to the glass, staring longingly at the little swimming pool above the building’s car park. They love the water now but things were different a few years ago. Juan and David grew up in Bogota. They had never seen the ocean until we moved to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, an old pirate port seeped in bloody legend, nestled in the jungle among the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Sun is a monster
The sun is a monster so close to the equator, baking the tree-lined streets of this prismatic city. Plazas and old churches punctuate vividly coloured colonial buildings, all slowly crumbling in the humidity. Iridescent birds flutter in the trees. Parrotfish dart among the rocks where the cobalt Caribbean meets white sand. All the colours in the world, and all the crime. Venezuelan refugees are everywhere. Homeless families with no help, no hope and no future. Stray dogs and cats sleep all over the sidewalks, flopped out as if dead in the relentless heat.
The first time we took Juan and David to the beach they stood and gazed, eyes full of wonder at the sapphire ballet of the endless waves. Juan burst into tears when I tried to coax him into the water. A few months later they were swimming like dolphins among shoals of tropical fish, plastic bags and other floating detritus.
The port is next to the beach. Leviathan cargo ships travel the Panama Canal to Santa Marta, ending their voyage towed into the harbour by buoyant little tugboats but leaving a soiled ocean in their wake. At night we could hear the foghorns through the sweltering darkness. Locals sold fresh fruit from carts. I bought a huge bag of bananas for a few pence, sure I’d got a good deal until I got home and my wife laughed at my inability to negotiate.
The narrow streets of our barrio, La Teneria, were regularly terrorised by a howling wind the locals called La Lorca ‘the crazy’. Like a banshee, La Lorca would whip through the streets sending people running for shelter – a 100mph wind that somehow remained hot. It was as if a sadistic giant towered over the city fanning the streets with a cosmically sized hairdryer.
Prostitutes and drug dealers
Prostitutes and drug dealers would work the waterfront after dark, mixing with tourists and sailors. Turn on the tap in La Teneria and you waited for a trickle of tea-coloured water full of black lumps. We moved 600 miles inland to the mountains, where crime is lower, life is slower and the water is crystal clear the moment you turn on the tap.
By the time the boys have finished their school work the sun is setting over the valley. Before lock-down they would have gone outside to play football with their friends. Tonight David is playing a board game with Marcella at the kitchen table while Juan and I watch lucha libre on my laptop. Juan’s endless appetite for professional wrestling has accelerated his English, amusing me and confusing his teachers with words such as ‘slobberknocker’ and ‘frog splash’.
The night has cooled and it grows chilly. Juan snuggles up beside me as the sound of David and Marcella laughing and arguing in the kitchen blends with the wrestling on the laptop. Beyond the window the immense blackness of the Andes obscures the stars, creating a jagged void. Even in their absence the mountains suggest infinity. My imagination touches the edge of the universe. Peace beyond describable beauty. The soul of everything is here in this tiny apartment on the Colombian mountainside.