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September 10, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Atlantis in Caquetá

Anne, the Irish astrologer I met at the international traveller Hotel Platypus in the La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogotá suggests why not come with her and spend Christmas at Atlantis, down on the farm in Caquetá. This morning we’re off to a slow start. An American Airlines flight from Miami, loaded with upper-class students on their way home for vacation, crashed into a mountain on its way to Cali. The first locals to reach the site looted bodies in preference to helping survivors. In the quiet patio of the Platypus I’m surrounded by an invisible rain of flaming debris. Travel is the intuitive art of picking one’s way through dangers. Anne enters yawning in a blue dressing gown and snarls at me, “Aren’t you ready to go yet?”

It’s stop and go through the grimy outskirts of Bogotá till the bus picks up speed descending the green Andes past red-roofed villages, then all afternoon south along an agricultural valley between blue-pillared ranges to Neiva, capital of the state of Huila. Dinner is arepas, corn pancakes fried on a street grill by an unassuming master whose dignity in this humble art reminds me of ex-Sandinista and Contra soldier Marvin el Chanclazo spreading glue on shoe-leather in León, Nicaragua . If this man were working la Séptima in Bogotá he might be making more money, but he would consider himself poor, he would be desperate and dangerous. Here in Neiva he is a maestro, a man of substance, and his hotcakes crumble deliciously on the tongue. The juice vendor refills our tumblers of orange juice unasked. People pleasantly circulate in the plaza even though it’s after dark. By this hour the streets of Bogotá are empty. I realize that what I sense is an absence of fear.
Anne and I have talked about fidelity, she doesn’t get it, how boring it would be to sleep with just one person the rest of your life, but I can relax for God’s sake, nobody’s going to rape me! as we chastely share the guest bedroom in the apartment of a cousin of one of her astrology clients. In the morning a phone call changes Anne’s plans, her honcha Jenny James needs her in Florencia, one provincial capital down, so I should just head on up to the farm by myself, the guys will be perfectly glad to see me. Anne draws me a map, it’s safe as houses, of course it’s the Red Zone, la Zona Roja, controlled by the guerrillas, which makes it even safer. I’m not convinced, but the thousand-peso coin I carry with the golden face of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz comes up heads, and so I climb on the ten o’clock chiva, waving goodbye to Anne and everyone I’ve ever known.
The word chiva means she-goat, and this critter is less a bus than a flat-bed truck, gaily painted red and blue and white and yellow like an Easter egg. In back there’s a wooden frame with benches all across, fits maybe sixty people packed, plus children who don’t pay but have to stand, and not counting chickens. One fellow holds a fighting cock, swathed in a white towel so only the head shows, the eye glancing suspiciously, looking for enemies. More folks ride on the roof among spare tires and crates and cartons. We make a top speed of 30 km/hour on the dirt roads outside Neiva, but slow into first gear ascending the grade of the Cordillera Central, then down the far side into the watershed of the Amazon.

I haul my backpack down at Rovira, a dozen forlorn buildings along a wide spot in the road. As usual, I’ve overpacked, so I leave a bag of my stuff with Marlena at the recommended Escorpión Bar, any friend of los ingleses is a friend of hers. Three–thirty already, and one degree north of the equator, sunset will be six sharp. How far is it to the farm? Two hours? Marlena frowns. More like three. Better shake a leg. A muddy trail cuts downhill toward the river, crosses a small stream on a log and then the main Río Caquetá on a concrete bridge, and strikes uphill. I’m sweating as I crest a grassy knoll where the path forks, looking down across the canyon at Rovira, a nest of structures along a scar of road.

My trail slants up a ravine, crosses a stream, then slogs steep switchbacks toward a farmhouse said to belong to the amiable Doña Alicia. Above her outbuildings I miss a turn, ascend a long slope on game paths toward a crest of trees. I’m crashing my way through head-high ferns until I slide my gear through a barbed-wire fence and scramble down to the trail again. Five minutes to five, and the sun’s dipping into trees. I contour round the head of the valley and enter the high rain-forest where it’s already twilight. The trail is muddy between big roots of trees, and the air’s alive with the calls of mysterious birds and insects. I cross two more streams and climb up the far bank to a gate, closing it behind me. I circle a pasture and there, in the last light, on the far side of a little lost valley, are the wooden houses of Atlantis. I halloo, and am answered back. Two hours, ten minutes from the road.

It’s a holiday for Fin and Ned to have somebody new to talk to. Fin’s balding, with specs, nearly my age; he hauls out his guitar and we sing what we know in common: Christmas carols and the Grateful Dead. He used to play in a country and western band in Ireland; he’s forgotten half the songs he knew. When Fin goes down to Bogotá, he takes in some coins as a busker, climbing aboard a bus with his axe, playing a tune, passing the hat.

Ned, working-class English, curly–headed, built like a bull, used to be married to Anne. He’s spent half his thirty-eight years in Atlantis. He left the commune at one point, married a Colombian woman, had a son, working extra-long hours teaching English in Neiva to buy this farm; then everything fell apart, his finances, the marriage, he called Jenny James back in to straighten it all out.

The guys are up before light, starting a kitchen fire, tending to animals. I decadently sleep in until the morning’s pink and blue over distant ridges and the howler monkeys clear their throats from the edge of forest. After porridge and coffee, they put me right to work picking blackberries. The vines are strung down the hillside, glistening wet with dew; in an hour I’ve gathered a gallon of big ripe berries, which will make wine. Then I weed chard and onions. The torn-out greens go to the chickens.

Atlantis is vegetarian, but they have eggs, and milk from the cow and the goats, and the chickens and guinea pigs process green waste into manure, which goes back into rich garden beds. There are green beans, corn, black-eyed peas, brussel sprouts, collard greens, parsley, celery, beets, broccoli, garlic, cabbage with curly leaves tipped red and white, pumpkins and bananas, kale, a profusion of flowers, coleus, tiger lilies, hibiscus, fuchsia, nasturtiums and tree tomatoes. All the veggies go into an overcooked pot on the woodstove and come out tasting like soggy English cuisine.
Now the rainy season’s over, the campesinos are burning newly-cut forest across the far hills, and planting corn and beans for subsistence, plus a cash crop of amapola poppies to be processed into heroin. Jenny James’s political push is to market self-sufficient organic gardening as a viable alternative for the Colombian peasant farmer, and dry the drug trade out at the source. The regional commander of the FARC guerrillas visited Atlantis and was impressed. Holding up a handful of green beans, he said “this is what you win a war with, not bullets.” But the bullets also fly in this neighborhood. A local campesino leader named Luis Erasmo Arenas Hurtado got interested in Jenny’s message and was using a Green argument to challenge the administration of federal largesse; one morning they found his body by the river in Puerto Milán, a few chiva-hours down into the Amazon Basin. And a couple of years after I was there, a youth from the farm was found along with a Colombian friend, beheaded by the narcos.

In the afternoon, men in muddy knee-high boots with machetes in scabbards come by, respectfully asking for “Don Ned.” They’re carrying a hundred-pound bag of baloui beans they’d like to trade for blackberry wine. Baloui beans look just like ordinary green beans, except they grow on a rain-forest tree, the pod is a couple of feet long and the texture of a machete scabbard, and the individual beans are the size of new potatoes. The bad news, Ned tells them, is we’re between batches of wine; they content themselves with packets of vegetable seeds.
The women of Atlantis are branching out into the world. Jenny’s into politics, Anne’s astrology is a big money-maker, and Mary, whom I also met at the Platypus, does shiatsu massage in Bogotá. The men are worker bees. But Ned, strong as a horse, takes to bed with a fever and a splitting headache. Fin’s left with the animals; I tend the fire and shred kale and beets for the salad. The chickens crowd eagerly to the wire fence as I approach with the scraps, knowing that humans bring food.
It’s Christmas Eve, and Fin’s in a funk, he won’t talk or eat. “Now you see what it’s like,” says Ned, “being stuck up here on a mountain with Fin and a hundred guinea pigs!”

“Which one is better company?” I ask.
“The hundred guinea pigs!”

Come on, Fin, out with it, tell the story. Out of a loveless marriage with Mary, Fin withdrew entirely from sexuality, until last summer, when he found himself all of a sudden chosen to be the lover of Jenny James. It was so wonderful he couldn’t stand it, and after seven weeks he ran away all the way to Bogotá. Now he’s kicking himself so hard he can’t even tell it straight. But the telling does melt his ice, and we down a cup of delicious blackberry wine we’ve kept in reserve and sing silly Christmas songs, Rudolph and White Christmas.
“Why don’t I say you guys one of my poems,” I suggest, and I recite a poem I know by heart in English and Spanish, it’s always a crowd-pleaser:

The man who walks at 5 a.m.
the inner balcony of the old hotel
turning out the electric lights
is the Lord of the House of Dawn.
He makes the sky grow pale,
he makes the earth turn,
he separates lovers,
sends children to school
and prisoners to the firing squad.
He appears in dreams
as a father or grandfather
or a forgotten friend.
He turns off the stars.
he cannot be paid enough
for the exercise of his profession.
A rhythm follows his footsteps:
the snapping of switches.

Ned clears his throat. “It’s over my head,” he says. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” So I explain how I lay sleepless in my hotel room in Mexico City until finally at dawn this little old man came round stopping by each room to snap off the light, and how he is the great god Quetzalcoatl bringing the morning, but Ned says, “how am I supposed to know all that’s in there?” So I try saying another one, the one I wrote on the Metro in Mexico City, the one that people always come up and congratulate me saying that it means so much to them, declaiming it slowly, underlining the meanings, and Fin sighs, “well, it’s all airy-fairy nonsense really, I understand all the words, but what’s it supposed to mean?”

Songs are poetry, I suggest. What about John Lennon and Bob Dylan? Never could stand either of them, full of malarkey, sneers Fin. I feel as if I were a travelling violinist who’s stumbled on a village of the deaf. There’s a blind spot in Atlantis that doesn’t trust the imagination.

By late afternoon I take a break from garden work to paint a watercolor of the farm — an old log with brilliant flowers crawling over it, the ramshackle house with its weathered windows and rusty zinc roof, the tin stove chimney puffing smoke, and beyond, the background of the rain forest, blurred verdant turquoise — when I hear a woman’s voice from the top of the trail, my first female voice in four days, saying “a nice cuppa tea,” and it’s Jenny James, with Anne right behind her.
Jenny’s my age, tall, in great shape, startlingly attractive, and aware of the rippling effect of her charisma on everyone around her. Ned immediately apologizes for how badly he managed the farm during her absence. What I saw was a man working tirelessly dawn to dusk except for the half day he took sick, but he sounds like a puppy that’s going to be whipped. Fin gets an immediate diet of put-downs from both women, but he has a little gumption, bless him; when Jenny complains how cold she’s going to be at night up here in the mountains, he tells her, “I’ll be your hot-water bottle.” I don’t know about that, Jenny muses, you’re on probation, and she goes on smugly describing all the sleek rich Colombian 24-year-olds who were falling in love with her while they spent Christmas with the upper crust in Neiva, the rides in white limos to fincas, the restaurants with flamenco and parties with mariachi till four in the morning.

Anne’s in a royal snit at Ned in the morning, telling the world that he crawled uninvited into her bed last night. She doesn’t know what for, it’s certainly not love, she doesn’t even think he wants sex. She gave him the old heave-ho, and now he’s slinking around pretending nothing happened. Well, I have a bit of a bone to pick with Anne myself: the guys told me that the chiva to Rovira has been stopped by banditos three or four times this year, they robbed everyone, what did she mean saying it was safer than houses? “Ah well,” Anne grins, “if I’d told you that about the bandits you wouldn’t have taken the chiva, now would you?”
Jenny wants to spend the morning with me, we have so muchj in common, after all we’re the same age, so we weed the garden together. I get off on a difficult note asking why I got such a blank response from Fin and Ned the other night on poetry. “Oh, God,” Jenny says, “are we going to talk like this all day? Look, I can’t help reacting furiously against everything they tried to teach me in school, not only poetry but maths and Latin.”

When I ask her about the culture of Atlantis as a whole, Jenny responds with I, as if all this were a furious extension of her personal will. And it’s her anger that impelled this unlikely bunch of Brits and Irish to cross an ocean and build a utopia in the rain forest. She tells me about the cultural festival in Bogotá where she read a rhapsodic political piece entitled “Message from a European Woman,” explaining why she gave up all the technology and conveniences that Colombians would die for, and five thousand people were yelling and cheering every time she got to the refrain, “And I chose Colombia.” It takes me a week to think of what I should have said next, that they were cheering not only because their national ego was being flattered, but because people in this country know how to respond to poetry.

What about the position of men and women in Atlantis? Anne’s down on Ned, Jenny’s down on Fin; this female-dominant hierarchy works by a series of put-downs. “Ah, well, I’m just not lucky in love,” Jenny sighs. “Nothing that having a sexy man around wouldn’t cure.” There was a time it would have been hard not to impale myself on the hook she leaves dangling.
Another reason that Jenny is a little defensive talking to a foreign writer may be that a year ago they welcomed that red-haired devil Michael McLaughlin to the farm, and he did a nasty hit piece for the Irish Times full of weird speculation about the children’s sexuality. It doesn’t help that I confess to knowing McLaughlin from my days in San Crostóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, where he was reportinmg on the Zapatistas.
We break in the afternoon for music, Jenny on the fiddle and Fin on guitar diddling away some Celtic tunes, while Anne taps the deep drum and I try to follow on my recorder. In the midst of this, there’s a shriek from the far hillside: Louise, Alice and Katie, Jenny’s three blonde daughters, fourteen, twelve, and ten, took the all-night bus from Florencia to Neiva, caught the chiva, walked uphill, no big deal, kids from Atlantis always travel halfway across Colombia unchaperoned and without visible papers.
All of a sudden the farm is bursting with people. Louise’s seventeen-year-old campesino boyfriend walks in from over the hill, his sidekick is looking longingly at Alice, and all the kids disappear into a side room with a battery-operated boombox — the nearest electricity is in Rovira — and the rhythms of a cumbia come through the closed door. Teenagers anywhere.
Anne corners me after dark. She invited me to this farm because I had a traveller’s centeredness she liked. Now, she says, this afternoon, as I struggled to spot the tune while Fin and Jenny sawed away at their ancestral jigs and reels, my center wasn’t there, I seemed lost. She sees a sadness behind my front, behind the poet-identity I cling to. What would I be like, she wonders, if I were living in this community for six months?
Anne decides to “call a group on me” in Jenny’s cabin. The inhabitants of Atlantis wants to confront me on my expressed attitude about the children’s education. They’ve got a no-schooling system: the children hang out with the grownups whenever they feel like it, and they pick up whatever they’re interested in. As an erstwhile fifth-grade teacher in East Oakland, this troubles me, and I haven’t been shy about saying so.
As far as everybody up here is concerned, the best thing about living up on this hill is they’re far away from any school system. Anne was beaten by Mother Superior in third grade because she wouldn’t learn the Hail Mary. In Fin’s school they used a leather belt. Everything worth learning they learned after they left school. Why do I keep questioning their practice, and if I really care about children, how can I in good conscience participate in an oppressive system?
I describe the progressive high school in Vermont where I got up winter mornings at four-thirty to shovel gutters in the cow barn before French class, and I show them a photo of Jamila Williams, black and beautiful and twelve years old, in costume as Juliet at La Escuelita, how she hammed it up with her plastic sword, taking her full measure of glory, as she slid it between breast and arm proclaiming “O happy dagger! This! is thy sheath! There rust — and let me — aggh — uggh — die!”
“That’s what makes me angry,” says Jenny. “Shoving Shakespeare down children’s throats!” They put on a play, down in Rovira, entitled And What About Their Education? Jenny wrote it, the children acted, Louise played a dried-up tyrannical school marm, it was terrific. Everybody for miles around came to see it even though it was in English; the greater Rovira metropolitan area has few alternatives to cockfights and knifings as cultural entertainment.
I share their underlying criticism of how schools usually are, but the psychic power of their unanimity impresses me, the consensus of Atlantis formidably focused on the dissenter. It would be so much easier, especially if I were here for months, for years, forever, especially if I were hooked into the social system of sexual dependence, to agree, to accept, to let go, to recant, to be taken back gratefully into the warm community of Jenny James thought.
Heading down the trail in the dawn, I feel like I’ve narrowly escaped with sense of self intact. The sun rises over ridges as I keep the ferns on my right, sticking to the proper trail this time. I slog down into Rovira, which now has the aspect of a minor metropolis — wow, there must be at least a dozen buildings here, so many people! — and pick up the gear I left at the Escorpión.

The chiva, now appearing a major link in a super-modern transportation system, comes puffing up the hill a couple of hours late, having blown a tire down the road. Not far above Rovira, we grind to a halt at a curve overlooking the valley: the spare’s blown. We finally surmount the grade and bumpity bump, the second spare has blown. This time they pull out the inner tube, sprinkle radiator-water on it to find the leak, and patch it like a bicycle tire. The afternoon is notably waning by the time we get going again. Five more kilometers, at a godforsaken hairpin turn halfway down the canyon, wumpity wumpity wump, the fourth blowout.
Ricardo who owns the Escorpión tells me one time the chivas were on strike and Anne walked all the way from Neiva to the farm. It’s seventy-eight kilometers plus the trail. Took her two days. “You live near Señora Jenny?” somebody asks him. “Ay, la Jenny wants us all to stop cutting down the forest, wants us to stop growing poppies.” The fellow throws up his hands. What can a poor man do between two such natural forces as Señora Jenny and the market for poppies? “After all, everybody’s cutting down the forest…”
The equatorial twilight makes the oranges in their sacks on the roof of the chiva gleam like distant planets. Ricardo’s friend says when he was in prison he met a couple of young gringos who were busted for marijuana. One of them was the son of the mayor of Seattle or someplace, but that didn’t get him off. Sure did learn how to speak Spanish good in the joint though. I don’t ask the guy what he himself was in for. Robbery is a serious blot on one’s character, while murder may be something that you just have to do. At last the tire’s repaired and we’re on our way again. I suggest a pool on how many kilometers until the next blowout. “Dos.” “Yo digo cinco.”
It’s maybe four kilometers — but we haven’t put any money down — when that familiar bouncing sensation announces blowout number five. This time we’re in luck, we’re right by a little store in a forested ravine. We quickly deplete the local supply of cakes and gaseosas. The new moon rides above the dark branches. By flashlight, the bus crew, with faces long gone past irritation and weariness and defeat into manic zeal, attacks the huge truck tire with sledgehamers and crowbars to pry it once again from the rim.
We’re rescued at last by another chiva from the same company, running the route four hours behind us; we appropriate their sound spare tire in order to limp into Neiva. Next day I doze the familiar road to Bogotá. I dream they’re offering me a special bilingual teaching position in Oakland. “I’m sorry, but I’m not really here,” I tell them. “I’m in some country on my way from México to Argentina.”

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