HOW TO LIVE – Part 1
I sit at a shopping trolley filled with beer. A radio tied to an umbrella plays above my head as I drink and smoke, listening to the guitars.
A stone plaza filled with trolleys the same as mine surrounds me while old groups of men gather at the perimeter to play guitar and sing with their friends. After trolley beers, I leave for the city center of Medellin, Colombia. I walk along a street filled with hookers and old men standing out the front of cheap bars, beckoning me to enter. Others, young and old, stand in corridors and entrances of corroding apartment buildings. Iron gates bar the windows; liquor stores serve patrons through prison-style bars at their storefront.
Through the main street and past a fried chicken shop a Latino wearing a sports coat beckons me along an underground staircase to a strip club. The rum proved to be cheap; I ordered and found a seat against the wall. The sign at the bottom of the stairwell asked its patrons to use condoms. I sat and drank, watching the pornography and football on separate TV’s overhead. Walking along the runway, a middle aged Colombian woman got naked. I remembered reading an article on the country’s legality of prostitution. A few minutes later the girls started leading their customers through a hole in the wall beside the DJ booth where one had to be crouched to enter.
I finished my rum and left: still daylight: four in the afternoon on a Tuesday.
Friday night, in a club with a Mexican named Nacho. We’d met at university parties and had had language exchange now twice at my house. Tequila shots. I buy a gram of cocaine from three locals in XXL T-shirts and new era hats for $30,000 pesos: 10,000 more than usual. They leave the bar directly after our transaction. I then realised what had happened; ‘I’m drunk, they ripped me off.’ Although it was a shitty gram it’s still better than home, and still much cheaper. I share with 2 of Nacho’s amigas, who admit it’s not high quality for the club district we’re in. One declined my offer due to her unhealthy Corazon-heart, so instead we talk.
Awake now, I check my phone: eleven in the morning.
I’m still drunk, not yet hung over: time to find a resting place before my headache hits. I left the unknown apartment as silently as my body could drag me, past two Latinos sleeping on the couch, down three flights of stairs and out the front door.
Walking home in the hot sun, I stop to buy Marlboro Red’s from a shopping trolley. Fifteen minutes more and I arrive at my share house. I find my girlfriend smoking in the courtyard with my amigo Daniel; He’d rode his motorbike to my house to help her find me; She hadn’t slept and had asked my housemates who’d seen me last night, and where I’d stayed. I stumble through the front door to sour looks and suspicion.
I explain my alibi and sleep the afternoon. At seven I take her out for chicken wings and beer and we talk a lot.
I take bumps of cocaine and smoke joints over a bottle of rum with my amigo Daniel, who’d consoled my girlfriend over my disappearance earlier. The local barrio-suburb of Baco is a liquor store on the side of the road. Cheap metal dining settings sit outside, to one side a reggaeton club, and the other, electronica. We talked politics.
He explains why Che Guerrera and Karl Marx are popular across South America and how Pablo Escobar is considered a lower class Colombian hero. He talks of his countries need for communism and their wealth and education inequalities; communism can level the playing field for the lower class that populated the country.
I shared the news of my grandmothers passing, and that I was to have a drink for her; she’d died at 98. He told me it’s time she rested, and we drank down our toast.
We walked the streets back to his block where we’d met earlier. His friends were drinking Aguardiente at the bus stop. After being introduced they bombarded me with simple English. Sick of being pulled by the arm to start new conversations, I convinced Daniel to take me to a bar.
My second night in the club district I accompanied Daniel, his amiga by the name ‘mi amore’ - my love, and a tall, skinny and polite local man around town. Being late, we were unable to buy rum from the liquoerias until convincing a storeowner to place the bottle in the corner of the security bars. We paid him and drank from plastic shot glasses on the curb. Then, we shared bumps off my keys while listening music from the gutter outside the clubs.
Daniel poured liquor on the curb for his dead friends. We drank down another toast.
Outside another bar the patrons spilled out into the street. Daniel asked me to help him meet a pale blonde Irish girl. He had control until they danced; he grabbed her by the waist, grinding his crotch against her ass. He doesn’t understand why white people talk so much, telling me this flatters Colombian women. Soon after, our group and the Irish girl including her friends parted ways.
We sat in a nearby park, buying more beers from shopping trolleys. Mi amore left to find marijuana. The group informed me it’s useless waiting for her to return.
The tall Colombian left after our taxi arrived back at Daniel’s block. With us both remaining, we sat under a bridge with his childhood friends and an old man.
Daylight crept up on us. The old man gave me shots of Aguardiente while another offered bumps from his gram bag, labeled with a pistol: my gear now long gone. His coke being very strong, and Daniel’s too. The old man told me he’s in the screen-printing business with his brother, handing me his business card and another plastic cup of warm Aguardiente. They named me ‘piano fingers’ because I was tapping on my arm as I sat. Everyone laughed. The old man kept staring at me, but by this time in my travels it was normal; my accent, my skin and my tattoos make me something of a spectacle in this culture.
Now out of cocaine and booze, we sat on another curb outside the corner store waiting for it to open. The time reads 6:30AM: it opens at 7. I tell the group of my journey from Argentina, heading north by bus, to get to Colombia.
Mid sentence, the alpha male jumped from the curb and ran. Slow to react, I jumped up with Daniel when we heard screaming. Running, we found the gangster yelling at a homeless man. Crouched in the foetal position, pushed against a roller-door of a garage by the knees of his attacker, the hoodlum backhanded and bitch slapped this middle-aged man while he shouted ‘thief’ in Spanish. The old man was derelict; homeless; with a cotton sack over his shoulder. He begged for mercy from his beating as I stood and watched, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. A thought swam up from somewhere within my inebriated state:
“What’s the plan if the police find me here?”
By this time the alpha held a wooden fence paling and beat his victim on the back of the neck. He got away, screaming and crying as he ran off carrying his empty sack.
We sat back at the curb and watched Mi Amore now walking the street wearing tracksuit pants and a tight prop top. After sitting in my lap on the curb she asked if I wanted to go to her house and have sex; the first full sentence in English she’d managed that night.
Daniel looked shaken by the recent events and I could tell that he wanted to leave. He’s a student, and lives with his parents, brothers and sisters and his grandfather. His university exams are in one week; he’d done a terrible job of distancing himself from the childhood friends he loved.
We marched on to a recreational park this time, meeting yet more of his friends, one taking a Jack Russell named Nacho for a walk. We lit our cigarettes and shared another beer. ‘Wired’ I’d best describe my nerves at this point.
Reality hit, forcing me to consider my next move, contemplating chess-like outcomes. Daniel spent around 15 minutes trying to convince me into accompanying him to a ‘finca’; not unlike an estate with large lawns, swimming pools and guesthouses and a large kitchen. I declined, thanked them for a good night and walked towards the main road. I crossed paths with the battered homeless man again. His head lowered, his eyes were glued to the pavement as he passed. His cotton sack had grown. I evaluated Daniel’s explanation to the event: thieving homeless steal from their communal suburb often, he should have known better than to walk their families’ streets.
I took a taxi to my end of town and bought Marlboro Red’s from a shopping trolley and a can of beer from the corner store. It was eleven in the morning. I sat in the courtyard and smoked, drinking my last beer. My housemates, awake, said nothing to me. My girlfriend, sound asleep.
I awake the same time as yesterday to a message from Daniel.
The car lost control on the way to the finca, rolled four times and landed in a ditch on the side of the freeway. They were lucky to be alive.
Smoking, in the courtyard, a line by Viktor Frankl came to mind:
“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now,”
How To Live - Part 2
It’s now happy hour at La Botija here in Trinidad, Cuba. Flies at the bar surround me, and I want to write about Medellin once more: my final night in the city…
Saturday night, my house party, in my living room. The police closed us down due to complaints around four AM while in the kitchen I talked cheese with two French exchange students. Within half an hour most Latinos and Euros dispersed.
Daniel and I walked to his block, our sights set to the gathering beneath the bridge.
More Colombians congregated here than last time, only a few of whom I recognised: the old screen printer, and the gangster who’d bashed the homeless man. We drank Aguardiente and rum and snorted coke and talked for an hour until an old man riding a pushbike wearing a bomber jacket rode up from the playground. Everyone familiar with him, except me. He sold coke. He asked around, all offers refused. The old man took a run ad Daniel for a reason beyond my understanding as I was doing a line off someone’s backhand. I snorted it quickly and got between them, my nostrils still burning. Nothing eventuated.
The group decided Daniel and I as the runners to a nearby barrio-suburb to buy cocaine. We accepted the money, and were told we’d be accompanied by MC Leon- a Colombian street rapper, and to hurry.
I hailed the taxi. Daniel and MC Leon told the driver where to go: a dark and decrepit residential block with razor wire and broken bottles protruding upwards from tall fences of the houses. At the intersection, sitting in the middle of the road on a white plastic lawn chair, sat a large black man. Daniel approaches as I watch from the taxi’s back seat after being told not to leave the car. Someone leaves a house, pacing in Daniel’s direction. The man sat next to me called himself MC Leon-MC Lion. Daniels has the nickname Tigre-Tiger.
The deal was made; we shared bumps as our payment for our mission during the drive back to the bridge.
Back beneath the bridge we handed the drugs over and received praise. I met a man in his 50’s who’d spent 10 years in a Miami jail. His terrible English surprised me.
Now I don’t rely on fate, but sometimes you’re in for a hard time.
Another old man, friends with the jailbird, called me ‘Skippy the kangaroo.’ Now standing over me, repeating the word ‘Skippy’ he told me to go home to my country. He told me to go back with the other tourists, followed by the word ‘marrica’ - pussy.
“Yo entiendo” I replied. – I understand what you said.
We locked eyes; his of an old man with nothing to lose and one hand in his jacket pocket, mine of a young coked up tourist trying to keep his composure; Wired’, for lack of a better word. I’d seen locals cut and bump coke off small flip-knives, but old men get worse and more disrespectful once someone cowers in front of them. So I stared back at him.
“Marrica” he repeated.
Chatter silenced for the seconds in anticipation, a circle now surrounds us.
The jailbird walks between us, talking in incomprehensible Spanish. They walk together back to the group and sat on a park bench to do a line.
“Tranquilo, hombre” Daniel said with his hand on my shoulder. “Relax, man.”
“El no es importante” he added. “He is not important”
Time passed until two police officers on motorbikes rode up a bike path towards us. The group separated, making way for the two eyeballing cops. The cops established their presence and rode away.
Daylight, again. Now old Colombian couples in Sunday suits walked the bridge on their way to Sunday morning mass. We walk to another park out of respect. This park more open than the last, we finish our grams. Daniel and I had finished mine in private.
MC Leon rapped to a circle of Colombians and a beat boxer. I sat on the bench and asked Daniel if he’s OK, his body language obvious he was no longer enjoying himself. I apologised for any trouble I’d caused, explaining I wanted no problems with his friends or to make enemies. He said assured me it’s not my fault. On the park bench, I shared advice I’d learned from an older friend in Argentina:
Never forget the friends with whom you grew up; in most cases they’re better friends than enemies. Nobody’s better to tell your story. But people grow up in different ways and often separate. The best way to handle this inevitable circumstance is to be surrounded with people like you. Keep your lifelong friends as friends instead of enemies. Too much effort is wasted on hate; remind yourself to hate every day and you’ll be exhausted. Admitting to changing times is being at peace.
Daniel’s head hung to the ground while I spoke. He nodded in agreement, staring at the concrete beneath his feet, still angry with his friends for standing over me.
My daylight epiphany: the only reason there was money in my pocket is because of him. We walked to my house; exhausted and dragging myself home, my vision blurrier with each step.
The dregs from the party filled the living room. Daniel lay down beside some Euro. I went my room.
The next day my phone stopped working, stealing my last sober chance to thank my friend, as I’d awoken to an empty house.
He knows I have a room in Australia if he needs although most Colombians don’t make enough money to leave their country.
Still happy hour here at La Botija. Mojito’s are a quarter price. Outside it rained; the flies have left the tables. I’ll order another Mojito, light up a big fat Cuban cigar and celebrate what I’ve learned, and to my new friends.