My new roommate and her friends were crowding the kitchen table on a Thursday night with a guitar and papers splayed about. When I asked what they were doing, she informed me that they were organizing a poetry slam for Friday night. My heart rose.
“Can I read?” I asked. It’d been so long since I’d read my poetry in front of a crowd, let alone spoken it aloud. I was itching for the opportunity.
“Aaw, no. I’m sorry. The slam is for my students. It’s in German, translated into Spanish. You should come, though!” She smiled and I smiled and laughed and thought, well, why not?
“Well, I might not know what the hell is going on, but I’d love to!”
The German learning institute was a good 45 minute walk from the new apartment down La Septima. I popped my headphones in and took in my new neighborhood. People were bustling. Street vendors hailed at passersby at every corner. In the parks, groups of punks lounged with open beers. Down the sidewalk, boys walked in skinny jeans and scarves. I felt home in my new neighborhood, felt normal again. Strangers smiled at each other here. This was the Bogotá that I’d been looking for.
It was dark when I reached the institute. I was greeted by three of my new roommates, their friends and a group of students and their families. We filed into a tiny room with a raised stage backed by french windows that opened to the brick alley behind the building. There was a congenial energy. Everybody spoke in German or Spanish. I smiled and settled into a role that I’d grown comfortable with – the quiet foreigner. The adorable German man that was one of my new roommates made a point to speak to me in slow Spanish and encouraged me to converse. I did so clumsily and fell into laughter over my poor attempts to communicate. Everybody was nice about it.
The poetry slam was entertaining, despite my language barrier. The students read in pairs, with one reading their piece in German and the other translating. Kermit the frog guest starred at one point and in the end there was a reigning slam winner – a young girl who didn’t seem able to stand still, fidgeting to and fro on the stage and her eyes darting from one face to another rapidly through the audience.
I joined the crowd that made their way slowly out to the street – my three roommates and a group of their friends. We wandered to a bar nearby. The bar was playing 90’s and early 2000 classics – Papa Roach, Sublime, Nirvana, Incubus. The Colombians were singing along raucously. I, for once in my life, found the fact that I knew the words to a Papa Roach song socially acceptable and even, dare I venture, impressive. I attempted to bridge my language gap with some boys from south Bogotá. Both of them donned thick-rimmed glasses and one wore a straw fedora. I learned that they had spent time in Germany as au pairs in the last year and were students of my roommate, who taught German. They were both in university, in their early 20’s. The conversation was moving sort of fluidly until I tried to ask them how they preferred to traverse around the city and they thought I was asking if they were able to help me get home. My roommate stepped in and saved me from my miscommunication and the Bogotán boys finally broke into some English. When I realized that they were actually pretty fluent in it, we all laughed. A bottle of aguardiente down and with a new understanding of each other, the group ventured out to the streets. The boys from the south lead us to a dance club.
Walking down Caracas, we weren’t exactly in a fancy neighborhood, we were downtown. The sidewalks were dilapidating and we passed by a homeless man sleeping in an abandoned doorway, covered in sheets of cardboard. It was raining lightly. Some of us stumbled and some of us waited at street corners for the others to catch up. A man who looked on the edge of withering into non-existence passed us with a heavy drunken sway to his step. He hissed at me and the girl walking beside me, slurred something in Spanish. The girl beside me sped up and I followed suit.
The street itself was silent except for the passing of the last Transmilenio buses of the night. When we drew up to the club intended, there was a crowd of kids out front in leather jackets and mohawks. The bouncer felt up my purse and demanded a small cover for entry. The stairway up was dripping with fog and the building seemed to be shaking from the human element dancing the night away above. When we reached the top, the dancefloor spread out in all directions of the open warehouse-like space. At the far end of the building, the DJ played from a stage and the bar was off to our left. The style of the audience seemed to be rooted in punk persuasion and 50’s garb with polka dot halter dresses and pompadours. When we collected our drinks and stepped onto the floor, the DJ pumped up Prodigy’s “Smack my Bitch Up”. I freaked out. I’d never heard a place play Prodigy as dance music. I was psyched. The next song was Placebo’s “Every Me and Every You” and I knew I was in for a good night. When I really broke into dancing, the dudes from Bogotá stopped and stared at me. I stopped, awkwardly.
“Nothing!” One of the dudes shouted over the music. “We didn’t know girls from the United States could dance! You’re really good!”
I laughed. I heard that every time I went dancing with Colombians. As if they expected the white girl to hardly be able to shuffle her own feet, let alone move her hips to a beat. I took the compliment and drifted into my own world as I danced into Depeche Mode, losing sense of my surroundings and feeling perfectly content with where my life was right in that second of time.
New people, new beginnings, new places, new experiences; this had become my Colombian social life. I think I had been mourning the regularity of my social experiences back home while I had been isolating myself in the last few months. I no longer had a regular friend base that I called when I wanted to go out. I no longer had a regular spot to suggest we grab a beer. I no longer had time to settle into comfortable silence or shallow depth of life conversations. I no longer wasted time with people simply to escape being alone. Every experience was now intentional and fleeting. There was this knowledge that every person I got close to in a night might be the last time I ever saw that person. It created an urgency and an ease all at once. I needed to get to know them as much as possible in one night but needn’t worry about what impressions I left or saying something stupid or asking the wrong questions or fitting in, even, because chances were this would be our last encounter. Once I realized this state of affairs, it felt like I was set free. Like permission to be whoever I wanted and permission to own that.
I used to have to try so hard back home to control people’s perceptions of me, lest they grasp at the wrong label and spread it around the town. That’s something that you live with in a small community. Everybody thinks they know who you are built on a collection of specific perceptions from different people that all build a definite you, despite your personal contribution to this construction. Here, in a foreign land, I was forever a mystery to everybody I met. Our time was limited and our connections as well. Forever new. Never constant. Nothing following you. Who would you be? The truly unadulterated version of you. I look in the mirror and see that person every day. She lives in me stronger than ever before. She lives in these words. She lives in theory to encourage everybody in the world to realize their version of her, their version of their own unadulterated selves. She encourages everybody to consider this. Write on this.
– Jaime Dyna La Mondain