All too often my writing becomes a diatribe against injustices or perceived wrongs in Colombia from my point of view, but this Sunday as I prepared to watch Colombia vs. Venezuela (el coco*) in their opening game of the Copa America in Chile, I found myself in an upbeat mood, and not only due to James’ godfather gifting him the Colombia strip, but also because yesterday, I enjoyed a true “Colombia moment”, one of the type that serves to remind me of my love for this country and the people.
It’s hard to imagine, in particular as I look out of my apartment window and the views over the Carrera Septima ciclovia and see all of Bogotá and their dogs draped in the yellow or red Colombia football jerseys – dusted off from 2014’s World Cup – that yesterday I met a man who openly shared with me his dislike of the beautiful game.
Perhaps it was his way of starting a conversation, but he seemed legitimately upset about football, rival fans fighting one another in Bogotá, the corruption within FIFA and the state of everything to do with the game. Our conversation was stilted at first, as each time a car entered the store car park he would have to sidle off and take note of the number plates and ensure that the new arrivals were indeed patrons of the shop and not freeloaders trying to park for free. Alba was inside viewing fabrics and I remained outside with the dog.
The topic of football brought us together but my interest in Colombia was what continued the conversation, so much so that 40 minutes later when Alba exited, fabric in one hand and baby James in the other, the celador or security guard bade “Don Richard” a formal and sincere farewell.
“Don Richard?” repeated Alba. “You’re going to have to explain this to me!”
His sport of choice was cycling, not that he practiced it, he loved to support Nairo Quintana and really get behind this international success story from impossibly humble beginnings in the department of Boyacá.
The conversation darted around once the topic of sports was left behind and before long we were discussing his time with “the mafia” moving “mercancia” in Guaviare. I shared some experiences of mine from 2008 in the department and he was not shy in telling me where he had lived, the towns and some of the activities in which he had participated all in and around the towns of Calamar, El Retorno and El Triunfo 1.
“But this is guerrilla territory,” I said.
“Guerrilla and mafia,” responded the celador with a smile. “Todavía bien brava por allá.”
“But, I have worked in Guaviare, Buenaventura and Cartagena as well.”
“Were you still in the mafia in Buenaventura and Cartagena?” I asked.
“No no. I realised that it was time to get out. You see, I am now a retired policeman. After the mafia, I joined the police and I worked in both ports.”
We shared similar opinions of Buenaventura before I asked him of his origins as to me; he was clearly not a rolo.
“Gachalá , tierra de la Esmeralda.” He paused. “Hydroelectric capital of Colombia.”
I knew this, yes, a reference to the huge hydroelectric plant at Ubala. I was more interested in the emeralds though. We both agreed that they were indeed beautiful, but, why people should kill themselves over them seemed to us both unnecessary.
“I know the best spot to search, where the seams for emeralds are. I have worked in a mine, you just need to plant your pick in the rock and out will come emeralds.”
Of course, we talked about the presumed “Green War” that is now taking place in the power vacuum left by the death of the former Emerald Tsar Victor Carranza and how his friends in his town were being affected by this.
“Do you know Gachalá ?”
I expressed a desire to visit and to see the mines for myself.
“When you go, and you will go,” he said with a certainty. “You’ll hear this song,” and he broke into song.
I suppose I have to go to Gachalá now, I cannot find the song on YouTube, although there are plenty of other songs but none sounded like that sung for me by my friendly celador.
And therein was the significance of this chance conversation. It was a true Colombia moment. A complete stranger – admittedly probably quite bored – just wanted to chat, share some knowledge, some joy and some understanding of his homeland. It was a timely reminder of why despite everything, I do love it here.
*el coco – literally, a “bogey” team for Colombia. And true to Coco form, Venezuela won 1-0.