Sometimes small steps require Herculean effort – finding foreign language symbols on a US keyboard, for example. Connecting to the Internet is another minor but vexing hurdle almost everywhere I go. Locating supermarkets and drugstores, purchasing minutes for cell phones, finding streets and addresses that aren’t labeled by visible signs. . . these are all the sorts of mundane challenges of living in unfamiliar places, and all which demand the employment of both patience and intuition.
In the last few weeks, I have crossed Colombia from north to south. I have eaten exotic fruits; I have shared beds with cats, dogs and other animals; I have imbibed with Colombia’s second most famous living painter, Jacanamijoy; I have walked barefoot and in wedge heels; I have bathed in private Caribbean beaches; I have dodged errant motorcycles driving through flooded streets in the Amazon; I have been taken repeatedly for being Brazilian and Colombian. Yesterday I did something I thought I would never do but which I’ve been encouraged to do for years: I scaled the face of a rock.
Two of my friends from the yoga retreat spent the last several days entertaining me in Bogota after Pablo Escobar departed for his sister’s wedding in Manizales, leaving me in La Macarena in his hammock-endowed penthouse with panoramic views. Bogota was blissfully tranquil as city dwellers took to the mountains and the sea for Semana Santa, so Natasha, Jaime and I took advantage of the empty streets and made several trips back and forth across the sprawling brick-colored city for various gatherings and activities. Jaime is a painter and a rock climbing enthusiast, among other things, and invited Natasha and me to spend Easter climbing with him at Suezca, just a couple hours’ drive from the center.
Rock climbers, I’m beginning to understand, are a rare breed – they are people who choose to ascend the vertical faces of rocks that reach thousands of meters above the ground using little more than their will and the rubber soles of the binding footwear that make ballet toe shoes look like bedroom slippers. By virtue of this activity, they have to tap into a certain calm and determination and faith.
Jaime patiently explained how our security system would work, and what each of us needed to do to ensure its proper function. He went up first, making a path for our safety rope and setting up a station where the three of us would meet. Natasha followed, making sure the rope was properly threaded for my ascent. I brought up the rear, collecting all the security equipment along the way. The rope is just insurance; it’s something you want to have in place but you never want to actually have to use it. The other thing about the security system is that it linked the three of us together and made our survival dependent on one another. It seems like maybe a good activity for the next United Nations summit.
Confident that my flexibility, physical proportions and the offering we made to the rock that morning would make climbing easier for me than most, I took my first steps on Mañana Gris, the 5.7 trail we followed (ranging in difficulty from 5.3 - 5.14). Any cockiness I might have had about my physical abilities was quickly done away with as I clung to the face of the rock, breathing and calculating my next steps – how to get from A to B. The scariest moments had little to do with being high above the ground; it was not being able to see where to move or how that left me momentarily paralyzed. Jaime and Natasha waited for me above, and a couple of times Jaime told me where to put a hand or a foot. He helped me see my next steps – and having made even the smallest moves helped me see what the next move could be, and the next. What I realized is that it wasn’t the rock that changed; my feeling of being stuck or knowing where to go had everything to do with my own perspective and self-belief.
We talked about Colombian politics and the upcoming election – Jaime and Natasha are in a burgeoning love but polarized by their political viewpoints – Jaime in favor of the radical/inventive but not very politically experienced Mokus (of Lithuanian descent) and Natasha favors Santos, a professional politician (allegedly corrupt and dishonest, but knows how to play the game). Colombian politics and the social/economic problems Colombia faces make the US look in some ways utopic – which of course it is far from being. In spite criminals who pay off the cops (who are egregiously underpaid) to look the other way while they wreak havoc; dramatic contrasts between rich and poor and all the strange formal and informal institutions in place to maintain this imbalance, Colombians are admirably optimistic, life-loving, warm and generous. One friend explained to me that he feels it’s his duty to have a housekeeper because he is providing a job for someone who might not otherwise be employed.
On the topic of coincidences and rocks (piedra = stone), I met another Pierre last week at Cafe del Mar on my last night in Cartagena – this one was an Italian from Bari, and we were instant friends. This was strange, of course, since it isn’t an Italian name at all. His real name was Pierro-Andre but he went by Pierre for simplicity. He spoke four or five languages and was funny in all of them. We were serenaded by a beautiful Spanish flamenco singer who was part of our group. I also bumped into some friends I met at Yos and Claudia’s finca – a Frenchman and a Colombian woman. First I ran into them at La Cevicherria in Cartagena, a restaurant made famous by being given Anthony Bourdain’s seal of approval in 2008. All I had to do was mention my friend Diane’s name (Bourdain’s producer) and I was treated like a queen. I ran into the Franco-Colombian couple again almost a week later in Bogota, at a concert that was part of the bi-annual Iber-Americano Theater Festival.
Now I am in Leticia, the southernmost town in Colombia, bordering Brazil and Peru – Leticia lies in the middle of the jungle, 500 miles from any major city. I arrived last night to torrential rains that sang through the tin roof of the Hotel Yurupary until late this morning. I have already had my passport stamped to exit Colombia and have a taxi coming to pick me up at 3am for the boat trip along the Amazon to Peru. I am following the Pablo Escobar-guided tour of Colombia and Peru, the next stop of which will leave me in Iquitos, a city which can only be reached by boat or plane and which was made famous by the movie “Fitzcaraldo,” with Klaus Kinsky. There’s something liberating about surrendering and following someone else’s directions – not that I’ve stopped caring or making my own judgments, but letting someone else’s conviction drive things along is refreshing. I will take my next small steps and trust that they will continue to reveal a path for me.