Here in Bogota they say that people from the coast never transplant quite right, that their voices are always louder, their hand motions more volatile, their Spanish rapid and missing half its s's, like a Venezuelan's.
Coastal people will address you right away with the familiar tu. They are darker. The black Colombians, descendents of slaves, stayed on the coast, and the Indian-Spanish mix of the Bogota Colombian is deepened by African blood in the costenos.
The writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a costeno, and he has friends in Bogota who say the old-school Bogota literary set, the high-Spanish gentlemen with their great distaste for the vulgar, never could get used to the idea that such staggering fame came to a costen o fellow who persisted in showing up at work in bright shirts that he did not tuck into his pants.
When you go by plane from Bogota to the costen o city of Cartagena you are flying from the Andes to the sea, down from the luminous mountain air where a stranger cannot run up stairs without feeling his temples throb, down from the clouds that seem to float across forested cliffs in the morning, straight down to the slow, damp heat of the Caribbean.
In Cartagena, dark black women walk the length of the tourist beach, carrying wicker baskets full of bananas and split pineapples. The women also carry long knives, and for a customer they will squat on the sand and lop off a fat pineapple slice.
A small public bus, all its windows open to the warm wind, carries you into town. On my bus the driver had a cassette deck, which he had turned up to exhilarating volume, and the music that bounced through the bus was unlike any South American music I had heard before -- conga or bongo drums, high male voices and a spirited accordion that made it sound like the Cajun music of the Louisiana Creoles.
The walled city of Cartagena is 400 years old and juts out into the Caribbean. The Spaniards used to pile up their collected American wealth in Cartagena before the cargo ships came to take it away, so they put up hulking stone forts, surrounded their settlement with walls 15 feet thick, and crowded it up inside with whitewashed buildings that stayed cool on brutal afternoons.
The buildings are still whitewashed and you enter the walled city now through fat arches that are shady and slightly perilous: a demonic taxi or a loaded flatbed truck may hurtle past you toward the bustling streets inside. You have to pick your way along because the sidewalks are narrow and the cobblestone streets barely wide enough for the noisy clutter of the day's commerce: the hardware sellers, the tropical fruit stands, the women calling to one another from black wrought-iron balconies, the glass-windowed shops with cotton dresses or carpenters' tools or cassette tapes, the banks with elaborate interior scrollwork and revolving overhead fans.
IN BOGOTA it rains every afternoon after lunch. The rain is cold, violent and sudden. At the altitude of the skyscrapers' top floors, it seems to be falling as snow. It is disconcerting, when you first arrive: you are standing on the 32d floor looking out at what appears to be a snowstorm on a long expanse of red tile and brick. Even the skyscrapers are made of brick. There are brick slums sitting literally in the shadows of the Bogota Hilton, so that you can watch a man pushing a wheeled cart through the dirt as you wait for the elevator. At night you hear occasional gunshots, even with the curtains drawn.
The South American traveler comes to Bogota braced for violence. The city is famous all over the continent for its purse snatchers, its pickpockets, its throat slashers and gun wielders and jewelry thieves. There is one story, apparently not apocryphal, about the busful of Bogota people who noticed that a man in the back was dripping blood under his coat. He was carrying, it turned out, a human finger with the gold ring still attached.
So you leave your passport and money in the hotel, work up the purposeful and paranoid stride of a woman on a dark Manhattan street and head out into a city full of bookstores, contemporary art galleries, massive gold-filigreed cathedrals and leathers that feel like brushed satin. Deep green mountains with stands of tall palm trees jut up behind the downtown business area. Sidewalk vendors sit against buildings with their wares laid out on dark cloth: leather belts, basketballs, paperback copies of Garcia Marquez' new novel.
IN POPAYAN, the colonial town to the south where men carry great tragic statues of the crucifixion at Easter, we happened upon a coffee farmer who invited us out to his land. He was a big curly-haired man named Carlos Ayerbe, and he had lived in the United States long enough to make him absolutely fluent in English. He came by for us in an aquamarine Dodge pickup and headed out on a two-lane road into the green hills outside Popayan.
"The farmer is no longer planting coffee or crops, because he can make much more money by working with the Mafia," Ayerbe said. "The mafioso will finance the coca and the marijuana plants. So it is very easy for a peasant to get front money, no papers or anything, and invest it in a marijuana or coca operation, which requires no care or fertilizers or anything -- just throw the damn seeds in and they grow."
Ayerbe worked for a long time in international low-cost housing, and he still hires out as an overseas consultant, which brings him a tidy income. Without that, he said, he would never be able to pay off his government bank agricultural loan, which has a variable interest rate that only seems to vary straight up.
"I'm the lucky guy," said Ayerbe. "I can never hope to repay the loan with the returns on the investment. That's impossible....Right now, there's a tremendous amount of people who are in a hell of a bind -- selling stock, cattle, to make the interest payment. I foresee that within a year and a half, there's going to be a hell of a lot of people selling land to repay their loans."
Who buys? "I hate to speculate on that, but if you're making 8,000 pesos an aroba with the coca, who's going to buy? The coca guys."
Ayerbe bumped his truck up onto a dirt road and shifted down.
"It's very sad also," he said, "because even though these people" -- the peasants -- "make a lot of money, what they spend that money for is something that is absolutely crazy, like color televisions and all kinds of electrical appliances. You walk into one of these places and they have a dirt floor -- I have seen with my own eyes -- and a vacuum cleaner. Sound equipment. A Betamax. Everybody's got a Betamax in Colombia.... The merchants are no fools. They saw the market and they took advantage."
Ayerbe started in on a story that sounded a little embellished in the remembering, but that he told with great relish. He was in a small-town appliance store, he said, chatting with the store owner. A barefoot peasant came into the store and the owner excused himself to hurry over to the peasant.
The peasant said he wanted to buy a refrigerator. "'I want a big one,'" Ayerbe said the peasant said. "So he shows him a monster refrigerator, with an ice maker, everything."
The peasant said that would be fine, but that unfortunately, he had no pesos with him. Would it be all right if he paid in American dollars? The store owner said breathlessly, yes, that would be perfectly all right, and the peasant pulled out a very large pile of $50 bills, from which he counted out $800.
Ayerbe, by now unable to restrain himself, asked the peasant where he lived. The peasant told him the name of the town. Do you have electricity? Ayerbe asked, and the peasant said no, they did not, but that he was also buying a generator. How did he plan to transport the generator? Well, the peasant had hoped to buy a car, but since he did not know how to drive, he figured he was going to have to rent one that perhaps someone else could drive for him.
It seemed the peasant's wife had recently come into town and tasted ice cream for the first time in her life. She liked it very much. She had grown so fond of ice cream that she wanted to come to town every week, and it was starting to drive the peasant crazy. He thought that if he bought her a refrigerator she would be able to make her own ice cream and maybe, even sell it to the people nearby. Ayerbe shook his head, still mystified. "He didn't even have a pair of shoes."