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Recuerdos de Chapinero

February 3, 2011


La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Lourdes: Our Lady of Lourdes, in Chapinero, a neighborhood in the northern part of the city of Bogotá, Colombia.

Of course it doesn’t really  look like this.  Unless you are on psychedelics. This is a High Dynamic Range  (HDR) photo for special effect  purposes.  A more ordinary photo has reposed on my mantle for many, many years.  Despite that, when I stumbled across this image on the internet, I must admit it electrified me and unleashed a flood of vivid memories.

I lived in Bogotá for fifteen months from October  1975 until March 7, 1977. I lived in a genteel rooming house on Carrera 19 just off Calle 63 for almost all of 1976,  about six  blocks west of where this memorable church is located.  Every morning I’d walk up Calle 63,  risk my life crossing the broad thoroughfare called  “La Caracas”(technically Carrera 14) and wait for the bus on Carrera 13, kitty-corner from the Church, to take me downtown to one of the language schools I taught at.  What I remember most vividly is the beauty of the early morning sunlight shining through the open  belfry.  Because Bogotá is near the equator (4 degrees north, I think) the time of sunrise and sunset didn’t change much during the year. I’m sure it still doesn’t. I  always loved the soaring lines of this gothic church and the usually cheerful crowds gathered on the plaza in front of it.  Crowds might seem tense or surly in other parts of the city but to me, they never seemed to be here.  Maybe that’s because I only walked through the plaza on weekends, when families were off work and recreating.

I said genteel rooming house. It didn’t have a name or a sign. They only rented rooms by the month. It seemed an older middle-class neighborhood.  It was a venerable three-story  brick building covered in ivy. The staircase to  the second floor was marble. The hardwood floors were continually being stripped, re-waxed, and polished by hand by the uniformed maid. By the time she finished the third floor, it seemed, it was time to start again on the ground floor.  Apparently new paint, spar varnish, and polyurethane were either unavailable or prohibitively expensive.  Labor, though, was cheap. Families that couldn’t afford a stereo or an automobile could afford a maid who worked 60 hours a week.  The sitting room on the first floor was kept spotless but unused. Lace doilies adorned the backs of the overstuffed sofa and chairs. A small table in the entryway displayed empty bottles of Scotch, which, being expensive and imported, were much more prestigious than the local aguardiente,  and empty boxes of Marlboro cigarettes for the same reason (four times the cost of a pack of domestic  Piel Roja)..

Genteel,too, in that I almost got evicted once for  presuming to invite  a woman up to my room.  Dona Eugenia sharply told us she ran a respectable house with an “ambiente  familiar”. Once my Swedish companion Astrid realized the insinuation was that she was a prostitute, she immediately took offense, objected loudly and at such length I feared she would get me evicted by her verbal outburst alone. I diplomatically hustled her out the door quickly, so all blew over and soon  Dona Eugenia and her husband, Don Felipe, went back to addressing me in their courtly speech as “Don Tomas.” and assuring me they were “a la orden.”

Several months into my stay there I noticed the floor in my room was getting scuffed and grungy. I asked Dona Eugenia if the maid could clean it when she cleaned the rest of the floors of the third floor and what would be suitable payment for the extra work, then gave her the suggested amount and a little more. I returned at the end of the day to find my room transformed from ceiling to floor.  Spotless and gleaming. The window had been washed, the clothes I’d left on a chair back or tossed on the bed were neatly hung in the closet.  Fresh sheets and a bright white bedspread on the  neatly made bed seemed to shimmer against the white walls.  For one moment I thought I’d entered the wrong room by mistake. I was shocked.  The next day I met the maid on the staircase and seeming to cringe,  she shyly asked me, making only limited eye contact,  if I liked the way she’d left the room. Yes, I said. Very nice, thank you, I said.  Far more than I  expected her to do.  She smiled nervously , hesitantly. Only as I turned to go, did she  nervously confess, while cringing, she’d broken a  small, cheap ashtray while cleaning my floor.  I assured her  it was nothing, not to worry (using terms like tranquila and no importa). She visibly let her breath out and relaxed, greatly relieved. Afterwards I reflected she seemed grateful not to be beaten for it. I’d bought the ashtray from a street vendor for the equivalent of 15 cents U.S.

Bogotá was the first foreign city I’d ever lived in. It was such a mixture of beauty and ugliness,  civility and  tension in the streets,  both intriguing and frightening, both romantic and gritty,  so attractive one moment and so threatening  the next moment. It gave me a million memories,  an internal, invisible  kaleidoscopic treasure-house of memories at once sweet and raw that will never fade and that I will never exhaust.

When I remember starting the day waiting for the bus, watching the shafts of sunlight pass through the tall openings in the church belfry, it  arouses a deep  nostalgia in me. Then I miss Bogotá.  almost 34 years have passed since I left. I have never been back. But in some way I have never left.














2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ricardo permalink
    December 2, 2012 12:42 AM

    Qué hermoso recuerdo! Y qué bella manera de traerlo de nuevo a la vida. Yes, your words are proof that somehow you never left.

    I, too, remember that Bogotá of my teen years. I used to hang around Lourdes because -among other reasons- I attended Meyer Institute, around the corner. When I read about your ordeal with this school on Open Salon I wondered if our paths ever intersected. Your description suggests that while you lived in Chapinero you taught at the downtown center. Did you ever teach at Calle 63 as well?

    After so many years and so far away from my birthplace I remember those days when -not having anything more meaningful to do- I spent the whole day at the Institute waiting patiently between classes to steal a few precious minutes of conversation from the teachers. Maddie, Ted, Allan and other expats whose names escape me.

    Thanks for bringing back these treasured memories!

    — Ricardo

  2. donegaldescendant permalink*
    December 27, 2012 5:31 AM

    Estimado Ricardo,
    Siento la demora en contestatle. You are right, in some wasy I have never left. I observed classes at the Chapinero office of Instiutio Meyer, met Maddie and others there but I think I did all my teaching at the downtown office between January 1976 and July or August of that year. I remember many people including Chris, Palestrina, Terry, Liz Clark, Claudio, Maria Eugenia, and many others. If you were there during those months quite likely we did meet.
    I remember asking students to explain new stories to me, and the slang in cartoons. Sometime in the summer I go hired at El Centro Colombiano & taught therethe rest of the year, both in the downtown office and the one in El Lago. I had a short beard and dark hair. Thank you for responding and I hope my post did bring back treasured memories. I will post other memories of Bogota from time to time in the future.
    Tomas/Doneaal Descendant

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