No-one ever knocks on the door at night. In fact, no-one ever visits at night, but if they do, they’re announced by the doorman, portero in Colombia, whose job it is to formally announce all visitors, from the plumber to the priest. It’s a bit like the way young girls were announced at London debutante balls in the 1920s, albeit with fewer feathers.
“Are you expecting anyone?” my boyfriend asked, puzzled. He opened the door and there stood the doorman.
“Bless him, I’d forgotten about that,” he said, as he returned to the kitchen. We were propped up at the side, eating brie and chorizo with hunks of bread, exhausted, barely speaking, both of us in pyjamas.
“I lent him 20,000 pesos a few weeks ago,” he said.
“He asked for 50,000 but the last time I lent a portero 50,000 he quit his job and we never saw him again.
“I had 50,000 in my pocket I could have lent to that guy, but we do actually need our porteros, so I thought it was best to only give him 20,000.”
Poor portero, I thought. Coming to our door to return the money, while we sat in our pyjamas, eating brie and chorizo on a nondescript day, in the middle of the week. I’d bought the food on my way home from work. I couldn’t even remember how much I’d paid for it. Our portero is a family man on the minimum wage. He went home freezing, on a cold public bus.
We did the maths. Our food had cost 35,000 pesos, we estimated. That’s around $13.80 or nine English pounds. It’s a full day’s wages for our portero who’d been forced to borrow even less – perhaps $7.85 or £5.
A few weeks earlier, I was walking down the street in brilliant sunshine, drinking the last mouthful from a fancy bottle of sparkling water from Bogotá’s most expensive bakery. I couldn’t take another drop of coffee that day, so I’d ordered the water even though it cost more than your average glass of wine.
“Can I have that?” a homeless man asked.
I drank the mouthful that was on my lips anyway and handed him the empty bottle.
“That’s no good,” he laughed. “You’ve drunk it.”
I looked at the man as though he were an idiot.
“Take it to a restaurant and ask them to fill it up for you,” I said.
“Oh, right,” he answered, surprised.
“And then, when you’ve got a bottle of water to get you through the day, you need to find the nearest person who is mopping with a bucket and ask them if they’ll fill that up for you, so you can at least have a wash,” I thought.
“Once you’ve got the necessities covered, you need to get into the property game and you need to move fast. We’re having a bit of a boom in your sector Sir, and if you’re not careful, all the best bridges will be taken.
“But seriously, if you need to take all that advice from me, you’re probably not going to last long in this town anyway.”
And then I forgot all about him until the portero knocked on the door.
Then, of course, I cried because the shitness of it all is a million times worse when you realise you’d forgotten, perhaps for as long as a year, exactly how shit it all is. That some people eat brie and others freeze on buses and it will always be like the only words in literature I’ve ever committed to memory, the words of Oscar Wilde, who said: “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.” And then I cried my guilt into my brie.
“You see?” my boyfriend said, leaning over to hug me in a manoeuvre that brought him suspiciously closer to the remains of the cheese.
“That’s why I always, always make sure we eat all our food.”
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.