Anyone who has ever lived in Colombia will know that Colombians deal with paperwork the same way a drowning man deals with choppy water. You’re doing well if you keep your head above the waves. I have long accepted this and I accepted it the other day when a new client asked me for a signed contract, a copy of my Colombian identification, a signed copy of my curriculum vitae in their format, my graduation certificate, letters from other employers, proof of property ownership, occupational health approval, evidence of pension payments, health insurance certificate, full tax documentation and my criminal record, or lack of it, even though they only wanted to hire me for six hours.
If you have ever thought, just for a moment, that corruption is a victimless crime, try taking a day out of your life just to prove your own existence.
I take every opportunity to enjoy the moment my two cultures meet, so when I heard that the play ‘Shakespeare in Love’ had been adapted for the Colombian stage by the writer Juan Gabriel Vásquez, I knew I had to be first in line to buy a ticket. And I would have been first in line had the online booking system not proved as comical as the Bard. Rather than buy the seats that were multiplying in my basket, I called the box office.
“Do you think this is a sign?” I said.
“No ma’am,” the operator replied. “Enjoy the play.”
The night of the performance fell on the day I had bound myself over to all that paperwork. The show was due to begin at 7.30pm. By 4pm I was sick of trying to track down documents I didn’t know I had, so I thought I would do forty-five minutes of real work and free my conscience to go to the theatre.
Forty-five minutes turned into one hour and then it was 6pm and my husband was shoo-ing me out of the door.
“Wait,” I cried. “We’re going to the theatre. I want to wear my ring.”
I ran inside to grab my most treasured possession. It’s not the most valuable piece of jewellery, but my ring once belonged to my great aunt Violet and it’s old-fashioned and over-sized and set in the eighteenth century style, when jewels were flamboyant, and I only ever wear it on special occasions.
Besides, we were going to the Teatro Colón. The Teatro Colón is the Colombian capital’s grandest theatre, a tribute to classical antiquity that pays homage to the most famous opera house in all of Paris, with scarlet and gold balconies that ascend all the way to the Gods. If you’re going to wear an ostentatious piece of jewellery, you might as well wear it to the Teatro Colón.
We got into the car at just past six and discovered that our favourite navigation app had deleted itself from my husband’s phone. Mine was too full to download it. No-one in Bogotá uses that app to navigate anyway, we told ourselves, they only use it to beat the traffic. We’re good citizens of this town. We can wing it.
We could not wing it. Every road we took was more congested than the last. At 6.45pm we were four blocks from the theatre. At 7.30pm, when the production was due to start, we had crawled less than a block.
A husband and wife in a confined space, who can each find a way to blame the other, echo the wars fought in the century that inspired the design of my ring. Both sides line up with their cannons loaded, their cavalry champing at the bit, and the first person who fires faces a swift, immediate and deadly response. I had prevented us from leaving earlier. My husband chose the wrong roads. We remained silent.
“This is ridiculous,” I said, at last. “We can’t be the only ones stuck in this.”
“There’s Frank!” my husband cried, pointing out a friend of ours who was weaving his way between the cars. He was headed for the theatre with an agonised look on his face.
“Poor Frank,” my husband said. “He’s always so punctual too.”
It was 8pm. I started to explain the plot of the play, stopping only when we discovered that the roads around the theatre were closed, filled with armed police and soldiers and security guards who were protecting a few politicians attending a nearby event. We dived into the nearest car park and ran.
“I’m sorry we’re so late,” I said, as we scampered up the steps.
“Don’t worry,” the usher replied. “They delayed the start. You’ve only missed a few minutes.”
Colombia is a good place to watch a comedy. No-one noticed as we slid into our seats. They were too busy bellowing. It was the audience Shakespeare himself would have wanted. They laughed, they winced, they gasped when Viola unleashed her cheekily strapped down breasts.
I laughed and I winced and I gasped too, even though I had realised that running from the car park had given me a blister in my unnecessarily high heeled shoes. There’s always a moment on an average day when the petty tediums mount up and you stop caring. I kicked away my shoes.
The interval arrived. It was 9.45pm. The car park closed at 10.15.
“Let’s just go home,” I said. “I’ll tell you how it ends on the way.”
We walked out of the theatre, easing our way past the ladies in their fox fur stoles and the gentlemen smoking their cigars. The sky was clear, the stars were bright and as we walked away a soft voice spoke in my ear.
“Aren’t you going to stay until the end of the play?”
La Candelaria is a colonial quarter and an alluring one, where the ghosts of historical figures, rebels and martyrs, squabble over the right to haunt the streets and every building has a story. La Candelaria captures the essence of Colombia in the way few corners of the country can and yet, when the sun sinks into the savannah, those of us who are left on the street find ourselves transported to Dickens’ London and can only watch as the desperate, destitute and downright criminal emerge from the darkness and set about trying to survive.
There we walked. A blonde woman in high heels and an expensive-looking fawn coat, cut in an unusual style, with a designer handbag over one shoulder and a ring clutched in one palm, alongside a man in a smart shirt, shiny shoes and a blazer.
The man who spoke was of indeterminate age because his face was so smeared with dirt the only things you could see were his eyes, and those eyes shone even though they were half-concealed by the hood he wore over his head.
“I’ll walk with you,” he said. “I’ve been here for twenty years. No-one will bother you if I walk with you.”
I learned a lot from the years I spent in journalism but the most important lesson, I believe, is that we judge others at our peril because each of us is only ever one step away from calamity. I have seen people drive too fast, just once, or drive the morning after a heavy night, or the morning after a sleepless one, and kill a chid. I’ve seen people lose their temper, just once, and kill another with a single punch. I’ve seen people fall in love, just once and destroy their own life and those of others. We live and breathe 365 days a year. That’s 525,600 minutes, more than 31 million split-second decisions.
I wanted to laugh. Have I ever criticised a tourist for losing their camera on a Bogotá street, or their iPhone? Probably not. They read the guide book before they come. They certainly don’t go tottering around La Candelaria in the dark, dressed in all their finery.
I loosened my grip on my handbag, and my ring, and prepared myself to hand them over the moment his attitude changed, or he produced a knife. I was so prepared I almost gave them to him, until I realised he hadn’t actually asked for them.
I also realised the man was walking in the road. Taxi drivers swerved around him, swearing, while the two of us walked along the pavement.
“Please,” I said. “Walk with us, it’s dangerous.”
The man looked at me and he saw that I was hobbling. He looked at my shoes and then he looked at his own. His sweatshirt was stained and there were holes in his trousers that reached almost to his knees. He hesitated. I don’t know the Spanish word for blister, so I smiled and gestured for him to go ahead.
“I like the theatre too,” he said, turning around. “My sister was in a film once, Rosario Tijeras, do you know it?”
“Yes,” I said. “But I haven’t seen it.”
He looked disappointed.
“I’d really like to see it,” I said. “I do know it’s very famous.”
“You should see it! Oh, you really should,” he said. “It’s good. It’s easy to get. You can get it on DVD from…” and then he stopped.
“I think I’ll just watch it online,” I said. “There are loads of Colombian movies online. I’d also like to read the book.”
“Yes!” he said. “Jorge Franco!”
“Yes!” I said. “I started the book once. I don’t know why I didn’t finish it.”
The man beamed. Then he told my husband about his daughter, and how his daughter never went without anything, and how he worked on the street and sometimes he helped the recyclers and sometimes he made enough money to spend the night in a hostel.
We reached the car park. The security guard stared at us; my husband, the man and me. My husband reached for his wallet. The man looked embarrassed, so I moved away and pretended to examine the cigarettes being sold by a nearby vendor.
I saw the man turn for a moment and fold the tiny tip my husband had given him inside his sleeve. Then he stepped away from the car park and waved.
“If you ever need anything, ask for me,” he said and he repeated his name, twice so we would remember. “Everyone around here knows who I am.”
“Thank you,” I said and the man backed away, in the way barristers do when they want to leave a courtroom but are afraid of offending the judge. Once he reached what he considered to be a courteous distance, he turned and disappeared.
We got into the car and my husband put his head on the steering wheel and he gave that two hundred year-old groan that all Colombians give, which is so loud and pained and reverberating that they roll it around like an R and it means, “Why does nothing ever go according to plan in my country?”
“Do you think it was worth it?” he said, looking at me at last.
I had my response ready. I had planned to say, “Sometimes you don’t need to go to the theatre to learn something from the play,” but I stopped.
“Who cares?” I said. “Let’s just go home and have an arepa.”
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.