Thank you Chapinero, I think you just saved my life

Writing is a funny business. When I am sad, I don’t write because I am uninspired, I lack talent and self-belief and I feel too guilty to inflict my own personal misery on the art of the written word. When I am too happy, I don’t write because I don’t need to. I am too busy living, planning and loving. I don’t stop to allow the ideas to form, the mind to wander, the story to take shape. I am far too cocky to reflect.

Hemingway may famously have said writing was simply a case of sitting at a typewriter and bleeding, but I know I have my own optimum writing mood. I need to be just happy enough to want to share, yet just sad enough to feel I need to. If you are reading this, then, you will know I am doing okay. Well, as okay as a person can do when their entire future depends on their ability to navigate such a delicate emotional tightrope.

(As a side note, a friend of mine recently commented on the more personal aspects of this blog. “Oh, it’s fine,” I replied, “I am completely in control of it.” “Are you?” he said. “I can definitely sense pain behind some of the things you write.” “So can I,” another friend chipped in. “See?” the first one continued smugly. “You’re not in control of it at all.”)

At the moment though, I feel very much in control. I am in love, you see, with something solid, stable and dependable, at least for now – my own little apartment in Chapinero, something I have wanted for some time but finally achieved thanks to a bit of luck, a fair wind and some kind of agreement in the fates that if Colombian paperwork is a sea, it is at least one that can be parted if a person is humble enough, desperate enough and touches wood so often they have the grain imprinted on their hands.

I haven’t returned to the Zona T since I wrote that last entry either (La Villa is, of course, an exception but that place is more like a home to me than a nightclub, an island of sanity in a world that is anything but) and I have no intention of slipping back into my old ways. Last week I was fabric shopping with a friend when he commented on what a lovely dress could be made with one particular fabric. “Or cushions,” I replied. My old, second-hand sofas are being re-upholstered as we speak. Life, it seems, is changing for the better.

It is not just the apartment, but the neighbourhood. Chapinero itself, which is not unlike those old sofas really – scruffy and a bit stained but carrying all the hallmarks of a life lived and, well, everyone knows exactly where the comfy bits are.

The other day I was walking alone up a part of Avenida Caracas, a part that would bring some friends of mine out in hives, but I like it. I don’t know. I guess I’m a Chapi girl. I feel safe even when I know I shouldn’t, because I feel safe in the knowledge that I know I shouldn’t feel safe and, somehow, that makes it all safer.

(I can’t imagine the frustration of being robbed in a “safe” area either. I even think I would have to say something like: “Seriously, guys, I expect this when I walk alone in Avenida Caracas, but really, leaving a cafe in Rosales? Are we on candid camera?” Ironically, of course, I am far more likely to be robbed leaving a cafe in Rosales, because that is what rich people do. No-one expects a rich girl to walk up Avenida Caracas. I may live among thieves and vagabonds, but at least they have the sense to commute elsewhere to work)

Anyway, I was walking up Avenida Caracas, weaving my way through an ocean of ceramic toilets, which must have been the sales flavour of the day, when I passed one of those sweet stalls and two men leaning over a high stool, playing chess on a chipped old board they had balanced precariously on top. Neither had a seat, but they were deep in concentration anyway.

“I wish I could carry a camera on Avenida Caracas,” I thought to myself. “No-one plays chess in the street in el Chico and, if they did, the board would look nothing like that.”

That night I went out onto my balcony to say goodnight to Chapinero, before I went to sleep. I looked down and I saw a homeless man, illuminated by one of those old-school street lights, going calmly through my bin. The sight reminded me so much of Oscar Wilde and The Happy Prince (“And so the Swallow flew over the great city and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates,”) that I swore for as long as I lived in Chapinero, I would never, ever, waste any food.

And so the following night, after a few friends had been to my home, doused it with wine and generally made it merry with their talent, beauty and infectious laughter, I was left with a very large chunk of very pungent cheese.

“Will you come downstairs with me and give it to one of the homeless people?” I asked a friend, who had stayed to help me mop up the wine. “Of course,” he said. Just as we reached the street a man appeared, lugging one of those old hand-carts, clearly intent on spending the night going through other people’s bins, looking for what he might salvage or sell.

My friend handed him the cheese and, being a knowledgeable soul, was about to tell him something about the cheese – or perhaps warn him of its pungence – but it was too late. The man stuffed the entire lump in his mouth and swallowed it without chewing. “I was hoping he might take it home to his wife and child,” I muttered sadly, ever the optimist.

It’s funny where I live though, a top floor apartment overlooking our famous Seventh Avenue (La Septima) which naturally divides the wealthy folk on the hill from the slightly less so below. That said, I refuse to refer to where I live as “the wrong side of the tracks” because I used to live on the other side of Avenida Caracas itself and I think that is even “wronger” than Chapinero Bajo and still a lot “righter” than many other parts of the city.

And so my friend and I were standing, wine in hand, looking up at the twinkly lights of the rich on the hill. “One day you are going to do really well and you’re going to live up there,” he said. “And when that day comes will you tell me, so I can rent this apartment?”

“Why would I want to live up there?” I wondered aloud, thinking about the Swallow. “How often do you think they play chess up there?”

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors

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26 Comments

  1. elpaisaingles

    Excellent piece as ever Vicky. I have lived on “The wrong side of the track” in Chapinero for almost three years now despite warnings of danger and the wonderfully tolerant attitude to those who opt for a different lifestyle. Yet I have never felt threatened, indeed, quite opposite is true, being welcomed by everyone.

    I too have grown to love this city especially my little corner of Chapinero, this, indeed, has come as a wonderful surprise

  2. rsnmccoll

    Welcome to the neighbourhood. I am proud and flattered to have been part of the troupe to have “doused” your new apartment with wine. Be careful on that balcony of yours.

  3. Paolo

    Hey BSFF, nice piece, as usual. A bit too much of a ‘classic’ feeling in it, lacking surprise… maybe you weren’t sad enough? Or maybe is it that I live in Chapinero Alto?? 😉

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Haha, you know me too well. I was ‘on the road’ when I wrote this (I was in Madrid, Spain) and it always comes through… “classic, lacking in surprise” – not sure you could have described Europe any better 🙂

  4. LauraD

    I love love love your blog! It’s so nice and refreshing seeing the city through your eyes! It’s funny, but Chapinero holds a special place in my heart… don’t know why, but it does and every time I go back home, I have to go to Chapinero to just wander its streets.

  5. Oneris Rico

    The aspiring photographer inside me hate you for not taking the picture of the man checking on the trash bin, he also was confused when you said… you wish to have a camera to shoot the chess players, he was like “what? doesnt anyone have a camera on his pocket?” =D

      1. Mauricio Torres Madrid

        The picture you draw with your words is so much richer than the still photo of a pocket camara. I enjoyed it much more because so many images of my past came to my mind. Thank you for reminding me of the beauty of the city I still love.

  6. Roxanne

    I wish I could be there as you mark your new beginning in the Chapi apartment… but reading this makes me realize that I already cannot wait to read your tales from afar. Epistolary friendship romance? 🙂

    Also, Brain Pickings is one of my favorite websites and they recently profiled a book called A Brief History of Living Alone. Given our conversations on milestones and solo living, I thought you might enjoy: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/09/going-solo-klinenberg/?utm_source=buffer&utm_campaign=Buffer&utm_content=bufferacc5a&utm_medium=twitter

  7. Brad

    Great post! And thanks to the socio-economic stratification of Colombia, I don’t see Chapinero gentrifying anytime soon (does gentrification even exist in Latin America???)

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Well, I always thought gentrification was simply smartening up an area, in which case that has definitely happened in Bogota (how much it has changed in the mere three years I have lived here) but gentrification technically means the smartening of an area through the displacement of the poor… having often seen homeless folk shuffling along while being “escorted” out of an area by a police officer, I can definitely see it happening. So ridiculous though, it is merely a case of sweeping under the carpet, people have to live somewhere! At that cost, we’ll keep Chapi as it is thank you very much 🙂

  8. Valerie Garcia

    Aww Vicky! I think you and I would have been neighbors! I just recently moved from Chapinero, after living a whole year there. I was told when I was looking for apartments a year ago, that if you can survive in Chapinero for a year (pretty much like NYC) you can survive anywhere! I too walked the streets like Caracas by myself and never did once have trouble… It’s not something I recommend to all – but I did it! Alas, it was my time to move on and learn a new lifestyle here in Bogotá… THE BURBS! So now I am up north learning a new way of living and loving it as well. Cheers to your new place and if you need pointers on the best eateries, panaderias and lil’ bars – let me know!

  9. Ceri

    God, Vicky, I’m so in love with your writing. You make me really feel like I’m right there with you.

    It’s so true what you say about being robbed in the rich areas though. All the robberies I’d heard of took place in La Condesa in Mexico CIty – the swanky, rich area. Walk around somewhere like Tepito though, where even citizens of the city are too frightened to go, and you’re left well alone.

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