Chapter 19: Green Thread, Green Ribbon

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved 

Popayán 1978

A year ago, more or less, we were in Mexico. We found a little town somewhere above Mazatlán and a small hotel created out of a former convent. I didn’t take a lot of pictures, but the ones I got, and that I really liked, were beautiful. I even got a couple of Julian that were so good I had copies made so he could send them to his mother. She wrote back (we did this when we got back to Tucson) and said she loved them, especially the one of Julian at breakfast one morning, looking toward the open window. Sometimes I think we should have stayed there, even though I got nervous and felt relieved when we left.

Yeah, well, I was a mess then and I don’t think I’ve improved since then.

Julian left around 4 or 5 this morning with John Reilly, who’s an American I think I met once–if at all–in Bogotá. He’s a writer and married a Colombian girl and now they’re living on a finca several miles outside Popayán. I have no idea why. In fact, I don’t even know why Julian called him to get together. He’s doing too much pot and drinking, although in the few days we’ve been here he’s cut down a lot. Still, he thought he should call John, who said he’d come up to Popayán and off they went. I was miffed that I didn’t go along, but now that I’m awake and sitting in the second floor corridor of the Hotel Monasterio, I’m glad I wasn’t asked. Anyway, Julian knows (and so do I) that I speak the language, have cash, and can get around by myself. In fact, I did this morning, going out for a while to take some pictures. Got one inside the Cathedral, available light, of the dome. I sat in a pew and listened to a priest rehearse Bach (or music like Bach’s) on this gigantic pipe organ they have (the organist has to sit way up and behind the altar!). There was no one else in there, and I took a reading with the light meter, but pretty much guessed the exposure. Then I kind of turned myself into a tripod, resting my arms on the back of a pew, and slowly squeezed the shutter. I took another one from a slightly different angle and finally one of the alter, but I feel like the first one is the best. Too bad I have to wait til we get back to Bogotá to see what I’ve got.

To get back to what I was saying–Julian got up and got dressed without waking me, but someone at the door made me open my eyes. There was this huge guy standing there, all friendly smiles, nodding, while Julian introduced him. I don’t think I even smiled, just opened an eye and nodded or something to indicate I was alive, if not awake. Julian said they’d be back tonight, but if not, don’t worry, he’ll be back tomorrow. I nodded, rolled over and sacked out completely.

When I woke up again, I was pissed that he was gone, but after I had some orange juice in that “Set of Great Expectations” diningroom downstairs, I remembered that he’d left with John and all the rest of it. “Set of Great Expectations” only means that the place is overdone with heavy Victorian drapes (velvet, no less! with lace undercurtains!!!), a dark wool carpet, heavy lace tablecloths, ornately carved chairs, silverware that weighs tons, and stuff like that. Reminds me of that black-and-white movie of the Dickens’ book, the scene where Miss Haversham accidentally burns to death. What keeps it from being creepy is that you can see through the windows the intense light and the tropical garden between two wings of the hotel. On the other hand, the other day we walked around Popayán–which is small–and toured the house of a former President of Colombia, Guillermo León Valencia. The house itself is huge, occupying almost a full city block, three stories high and with a patio in the rear that leads to a path which originally connected to stables and farm lands. A kind of “servants’ entrance” on one side struck me as Neo-classic in architecture but Middle Eastern in feeling, so I photographed Julian in it, through a wrought iron gate. I think I screwed up the exposure, though.

Anyway, the interior of the house–the part open to visitors–is too often a display of “look what I have!,” like leather-bound books, walls covered in “pergamino” (embossed calfskin, polished so it glows; it’s a little dark–reddish-brown–and from a distance looks like wallpaper (as in “paper on the wall”) and not animal hide), above wainscoating in white and more yardage of lace curtains. (I wondered if these people were originally Irish and changed their name when they got here?) It was quite a history lesson in terms of showing how people lived in the 19th and part of the 20th C., but it got on Julian’s nerves. Not the way the Valencia family lived so much as an implication that they were separate from the people who lived right outside their door.

I sound happy as I write this, and right now, I think I am. The psoriasis that started in Tucson became such a problem that by the time I got to Colombia, I could barely walk. When Julian showed up in August–and really pissed off with me–I was almost bedridden, but it turned out that part of the problem stemmed from the apartment where I was staying with Emma. I moved back to my apartment on Séptima, even though that arrangement is making me crazy. I had to ask the poor woman who is actually renting it to let me stay as a guest. I cringe a lot.

But then Julian “sort of moved in” (he stays where I stay) and after a couple of days, he suggested we go to Cali and Popayán for a couple of weeks. And I had misgivings, although I have no idea why. I was (and AM!!!) already unhappy about my living situation, and want to find something else, like a furnished studio apartment, but haven’t been able to find anything yet. And then there are all these weird people showing up, although not like in ’76, when I began to feel like I was a way station for every American college student who came through Bogotá on a quest of some kind. I finally put a stop to that after some really awful encounters, including a DEA agent (who could not have been more obvious if he’d been wearing a neon sign!) and an American medical student “accidentally” left parts of latex gloves under the carpet in the guest room. But the latest tourists just look so grubby and so obviously interested in trafficking that I finally told the porter to say I’m not even in Bogotá!

And right now, I’m NOT! But anyway, the psoriasis started to go down once I moved into my apartment, and went down more in Cali, although it still bothered me. Julian had called Bill Grant, who lives there (they worked together at Menéndez) and we were invited to the house he and his wife have for drinks and dinner and going to a movie. (We went to see “Star Wars.”) I have some red welts on my knees and wrists and Bill’s wife Marcela asked me if I had a rash. I said no, explained the psoriasis and she was very very helpful. One of her sisters has psoriasis (but different from the kind that I have) and has discovered that keeping the skin warm (not hot) and moist helps a lot, and I’ve discovered that that’s true. I noticed that after a few days, the swelling in my feet was going down a lot, and when we got to Popayán, it disappeared completely. I’ve been able to walk around town with no pain, no swelling and no peeling. Julian is convinced this problem is mostly psychological and I tend to agree. In fact, I kind of thought it was psychological when it started in Tucson after he left and my mother called me every day to complain about something I had not done.

Today, I’m by myself in this fabulous old hotel. Emma has the phone number, just in case  Great Tragedy strikes in Arizona or Michigan, but if it does, I have no way of dealing with it. In fact, it’s blissful being here and knowing only Julian can actually get in touch with me.

I have to describe this hotel, even though I’ve taken a lot of pictures with it. It really was a monastery and connected to the Baroque church whose roof, dome and bell tower I can see from where I’m sitting (diagonally to my right, ahead of me). It has two stories and our room is on the second floor. The reception area and other salons and the diningroom were created out of some common rooms on the first floor, although the current kitchen is the old one with relatively modern appliances and electricity. Consequently, the rooms were monks cells and simply modernized with running water and electricity. Our room, for example, has an old and solid oak door, and two small windows almost six feet above the floor, flanking the door.  The bathroom is enormous, with a shower the size of the maid’s room in my apartment, and it has hot water. There are two sinks and one very long counter joining them. The toilet has its own little room. It turns out that monks and nuns did not live completely alone, but had personal servants. The bathroom is large (all the bathrooms are large here) to accommodate all the stuff needed to bring in a tub and heat water and help the monk (in this case) take a bath and shave. The hotel’s laundry area, far in the rear, is a very big room with washstands and running water. I guess the hotel’s sheets, towels, napkins and whatever else were washed by hand back there, til the 1960s or so. (Oh yeah–I once saw a nun on a bus whose habit was so white it was blinding. Later I asked Mrs. Quinn how the nuns could get their habits all that white (lots of bleach?) and she answered bluntly, “They boil ’em!” So I guess that the hotel also boils their linens, unless they’ve installed a big water heater back there.)

Otherwise, the rooms are almost as simple as when they were monastic cells and, for some reason, this doesn’t bother me at all.

I also like Popayán. We came down here on a pullman bus because Cali and Popayán are relatively close together. I think it took us two hours. The Monasterio is “THE” hotel, about two blocks from the main plaza in front of the Cathedral. Local laws require all buildings to maintain their original exteriors and–to some extent–interiors, so this is one large, open-air museum of Spanish Baroque architecture, plus other, post-Colonial architecture. And the weather is IDEAL!!!!! I don’t think it gets higher than 80°F at noon, with soft breezes. We walk all over. We went to a movie at the only theater the other night. We found a wonderful little restaurant at the end of the Humilladero Bridge (under it, in fact), and I’ve taken a few pictures there, too. Also of the bridge. On Sunday we sat on a bench in the plaza, which has lots of beautiful trees, and just relaxed. And that’s when we discovered that the only language institute in town is the Alianza Francesa. We were probably the only English-speaking people there, because the other couples spoke French. It made us both think of what we’d heard about Popayán in the past–a Colombian Army general once remarked to me that what is liberal in Popayán is conservative in the rest of the world, while Julian had been told (repeatedly, I guess) that the people there (here) are incredibly refined. Over dinner, he commented, “What’s ‘refined’ about an upper class that refuses to speak the language of the rest of the citizens? They all want to speak French and pretend they’re in Paris!”

Pastel drawing of village in Mexico

A vague impression of the village above Mazatlán ('77)

Otherwise, this is the best thing we’ve done since we stayed in that little village in Mexico, and maybe better, since this is Colombia. I’m still not sure about Mexico. We went, it was beautiful in a lot of places, but neither of us felt like, “We’re here!” More like, “We’re GONE!” We stayed at a new and pretty hotel in Mazatlán in a room with an ocean view. The beach there is broad and clean and, at the time, mostly empty. There are little places to buy fresh seafood and eat, so we did that every night. The hotel had a pool and I spent one afternoon in it, drinking occasionally and pretending to do waterballet. But then I could barely move afterward, which Julian thought was hilarious.

But when we checked out, we discovered they’d jacked up the bill about 25% or more. Julian asked for an explanation and was told that we were charged the standard tax placed on Mexicans who travel as tourists around their own country.

Well, Julian is cachaco in as many ways as you can count, and being taken for a Mexican (and one from Mexico City, at that) really pissed him off. But he showed remarkable restraint, flashing his Colombian passport and other Bogotá D. E. papers and speaking that exquisitely polite (and grammatically perfect) castellano found only in that city. And he only said “sumercé” twice. So the tax was removed and the bill was “revised” and the total was about half the original sum. Muy bien hecho, sumercé, muy bien hecho.

Then we went to Guadalajara, with all its French architecture and nice weather, and we were miserable. I had bad dreams, Julian got a little paranoid a couple of times, and we disagreed on stupid things. We didn’t owe anyone anything, but we did leave in a hurry on the third morning we were there and drove straight back to Nogales.

And guess what!? It’s a really bad idea for a Colombian to try to cross the US border after sundown! Those border guards are very suspicious people! By that time, it was late and I was tired, so I was hostile. When the immigration guy started to make noise about Julian having to spend the night locked up, I said, Fuck you, I’m staying with him! Lock us BOTH up!

For some reason, I was above suspicion. The idea of putting me under lock and key on the Mexican side of the border made them think twice, and they let us both go. I think it was close to 3 a.m. when we pulled into my garage.

I went to the bathroom and discovered I was NOT pregnant, which was the biggest relief of all, and I slept very soundly almost til noon.

And now, I’m in Popayán with my camera and a notebook, writing, barefoot in a former monastery. I have not felt this peaceful in so long! I hope Julian’s having a nice time, even though I have no idea why he wants to wander around the Cauca countryside with John Reilly.  Then again, I can not imagine wanting to live in such an isolated environment and still write. My idea of “isolation,” to write or take pictures or something like that, is to have a country house somewhere out on the sabana, preferably up on the side of a mountain with a nice view. Out in the country but still able to get into Bogotá easily.

I see that it’s almost sundown, and the sky and clouds are full of beautiful colors. I have to call an accountant I know in Bogotá tomorrow to ask him to wire me some money. I have the money in my account and my checkbook, but the local branch of Banco de Colombia takes like two weeks or a month to clear a check from a branch in Bogotá. I want the accountant to wire me the money and I’ll pay him when I get back.

Just wish I could put off going back!


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