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If you get this, I must've arrived safely in Leticia — we just took off, Betty and Lupe and me, from Bogotá; although the cloud cover was high enough to permit a good view of vast tracts of city and the near countryside, only intermittent sight of the ground is possible; I hope we'll get to see some of the higher Andes? Anyway, it's either writing you or reading endless semi-mythical accounts in Dionysius of exactly what Greek tribes preceded Aeneas on the soil of Latium. . .
My walkabout yesterday was fascinating — about 15 km worth, and I got a nice tan just this side of a burn, only saw one other "blonde" in all the throngs of people jamming the miles of street and sidewalk downtown — he seemed quite proud of it — I feel somewhat conspicuous.
Downtown Bogotá is basically one huge open-air market downtown over an area of 25 streets by 7: at the foot of the concrete buildings, streets made nearly impassable by vendors, everything from kitchen appliances and screwdrivers to clothing of all kinds (I nearly bought a pair of ghastly suspenders) to dozens of peculiar fruit, about half of them closely related passifloras, pastries, sweets, meat pasties etc. — Very third world in the throngs of dark-suited men, about as crowded your typical sidewalk is, for a mile or more, as [a notorious singles bar in Chicago] on late Saturday night; altho' hardly as uninhibited: everyone looks pinched, and police and private guards are very much in evidence. Also plainclothes police all over.
There was a demonstration of teachers, about 10,000 people, in the main square, the Plaza de Bolivar, looked potentially dangerous (riot police with shields massed around the central statue of the Libertador; sharpshooters on the roof of the fronting 18th century cathedral plus other ecclesiastical buildings — the Government on the South, more 18th century like a clean version of the Louvre Cour Carrée stretched out into a long austere façade, the Bureaucracy on the West, another long façade of brick and limestone with carvings over a columned arcade, and unfortunately the remaining side is being destroyed by an unfinished modern concrete bunker of a thing like the FBI Building in Washington equally disfiguring.
[We just overflew a pale purplish-coffee-coloured meandering river, almost certainly the Guaviare R., and although from my map of the airline route it appears to be close to its source, it looked a good 2 miles wide already]
[Attempted to resume, but brief interruption for food, first dull eats I've had in Colombia, ate half of Betty's too — reëntering clouds now, but for a while you could see most of the ground, large arboreal or treey expanses with tightly winding rivers lined out in darker green: not very interesting, but you know it's not Iowa, anyway.]
Back to yesterday. Quite impossible to find botanical guide to Colombia, keyed or otherwise. Went into 15 bookstores, zilch. One of them had seen such a thing but sold out. Most had rather complete treatises on medicinal herbs, occasionally in the astrology section, superstition seems rife here and crystals still fashionable are sold in one block of street-vendings; some booksellers had books on the care and feeding of various cash crops, otherwise nothing doing —
Bogotá plantwise is a hybrid of the temperate zone, it never got above 65°F, never does, much; and the tropics. In bloom currently, in masses: snapdragons, geraniums, hibiscus, roses, kniphofia, agapanthus, daylilies; small trees looking somewhat like hibiscuses but the leaves were different, covered with purple flowers, a vivid flat purple like an archbishop's robe but deeper, called siete-cueros; under forests of eucalypti thank you Lucia of 2 different kinds, a smaller ash-leaved and the very tall hundred-foot kind I know from Morocco. Grass is very very green and hummocky,º although that's possibly because where you see it amidst the urban blight it may be concealing garbage.
At 3:00 I ate in some dive among other things advertising aphrodisiac drinks — I had one, called borojó juice, which was wonderful but [did very little for me] — also a main dish called bandeja paisa (I think this means 'peasant platter', it's a recognised local dish tho'): a large oval dish with in the center some rice and a softboiled egg, and clockwise from 9 o'clock a piece of very salty skirt steak in a sauce, a fried banana, some red beans with a piece of very crunchy salt pork (excellent), a slice of raw avocado, a Morgan-dollar-sized white fibrous thing, slightly convex like a watch case, no flavor at all, apparently 'arepa'; finally an orange-brown tarantula-shaped thing which on inspection turned out to be a Vienna frankfurter carved, splayed out, and fried —
Got back via cab at 5:30 to find out we'd all been invited to Mario's father's 52d b'day party, Mario being Lupe's daughter's fiancé, and although I'd been told in the morning there'd be no dinner and if I wuz glatº I cd. go to bed and not eat this sudden invitation supervened and of course how can one refuse intimate family1 — Fortunately, we ate at close on midnite, after drinking aguardientes with tiny whole kumquatlike fruit, called uchuvas, in it, imparting a flavor something like zubrówka, quite good, altho' the uchuva itself is of no interest; in company of about 20 rather well-to‑do Colombians, Bubí politely holding forth on various topics on tap as it were, as further guests dribbled in, I the only one w/o tie — you would have been quite mortified, I thought of you much of the evening, I had a good time.
Finally, food; I was starved again, fortunately. Just two things, but very good; the main dish was a soup/stew called ajiaco: a broth with cilantro and onions poured over a smorgasbord of stuff — diced chicken, capers, avocado cubes, corn, hot pepper & garlic sauce; topped with some kind of thickened whipping cream. Dessert was a spongy custard flavored with maracuyá, one of the odd fruits. Got back to bed at 1 a.m.
That last paragraph written on the ground in our communal hotel room in Leticia; the clouds broke at about 2000 feet, the last five minutes we got to see the Amazon, huts and trees all flooded, etc. — pretty much like on the Discovery Channel — but more about Letitia in the next letter —
We're guided here, so gotta run —
P.S. a few hours later
Wait till you see the delightful and appropriate gift I just got you!
1 an adoptive aunt's sister's daughter's fiancé's father — how can one?
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Page updated: 22 Jan 05