March 18, 2018
Today the regular kitchen staff is probably off, so no cooked breakfast for the guests at the Onyx hotel. But then the large Colombian tamale we are given is a meal in and of itself, the rich, flavourful and well-cooked masa with stuffing one of the things I have no problem eating at any time here. Judging by the number of empty rooms, it seems the hospitality conference attendees have made their way home, leaving the hotel to the remaining travelers and businesspeople. Not that I have anything to complain about: every night has been quiet, sleep exquisite, and the air conditioning perfect …
Out on the street, Neiva is eerily quiet, the masses of people and traffic absent on this day of rest. A few people mill around the street leading up to the parque, although the talleres usually beholden to the repair of machinery and motorcycles are silent today, bereft of their grimy, social element. I have to stop at the cathedral, throngs gathered for mass in the vast structure, the crowd engrossed in singing ‘The Sound of Silence’, not exactly typical Sunday mass fare.
The coffee shops around the largely empty plaza are also closed, well, happily not all, a cafe in the southeast corner of the parque open, offering a good strong coffee that wakes me and portends another dehydrated meltdown following hours in the baking heat of the heat of the day. As always, my heart goes out to the bulk of citizens required to work in the intense heat, without the benefit of air conditioning …
My goal is to visit the convention centre and museums that have appeared consistently on my maps further to the north of the parque, and enjoy whatever urban scenery unfolds en route. The sun is shining brightly and the heat not yet too intense, but with the streets as empty as they are, I am both enthused about taking photos of the buildings and urban vistas of the city, for the usual utterly boring subject matter that I favour, and at the same time concerned about the safety of such a proposition. It certainly feels quite safe to be here, and the tree-lined, broad sidewalks of Carrera 5 inviting to walk along at a leisurely pace.
A couple enthusiastically greets me, wondering as to why I would be taking photos of the street, but then with the stern admonition that I need to be very careful with my camera on display, as the town is rife with all manner of thieves, the likes of which I have yet to see. They are crestfallen that I missed their weekly gathering of a club for the town’s privileged and moneyed classes (he gives me a nudge-nudge, wink-wink treatment every time he describes the type of gathering, which I should obviously have been attending), but alas, I wasn’t, but perhaps can use some of their advice as to the places to visit in and around town. The thermal springs of Rivera come up again as we make our way to the orange juice stand at her insistence, the only business open far and wide, whose attendants seem to keep the man engrossed, and my idle chatter hence largely ignored.
As with so much of the rest of Neiva I have seen – and will later see – leaving the immediate centre, the calibre of the town rises significantly. Particularly on Carrera 5, there is ample green space, the business larger, well-presented and clean, retail establishments more proper, no crumbling facades in view, even a number of coffee shops, but few people in sight, and virtually no businesses open. I would expect many of the restaurants to be opening in the evening again, as is often the case on Sundays in Colombia.
The Quebrada de la Toma adds a colourful element, establishing the northern boundary of the inner city, the walls lining the canal lined with bright and imaginative murals and graffiti, and both sides of the canal lined with shade-bearing trees. In place of the expected thugs and hooligans I am continually warned about, drivers and passengers of cars passing by smile and wave at me, a landscape of warmth and hospitality that is so typical of Colombians.
The Centro Cultural y de Convenciones José Eustasio Rivera is impressive from a distance, but entirely shuttered, if not altogether empty. It is certainly fodder for photos of modern structures and the intriguing vistas that are offered by the juxtaposition of images, but humans will not be figuring large on this Sunday.
The idea of visiting the museum becomes somewhat of a fiasco, as nothing is open today – although it feels as if it never emerged from its Cinderella slumber. The security seems surprised that I would even think about coming here on a weekend, although universal hours for museums – followed in Bogotá, for example – are Tuesday to Sunday. But no matter, whether I take in the exhibition or not is largely irrelevant – what was more important was simply taking in the neighbourhood, and then moving on to the more exclusive suburbs to the east of town.
Two young men emerge from the area of the library, wanting to practice English, somewhat of a mistake, given that I can’t stop talking, even in Spanish. Only one speaks English, and that with a Thai accent, which seems unusual. But no matter, we converse in both languages, about language and literature, the fact that these young men are reading the likes of Dante is incredibly impressive.
Less impressive is the arrival of the motorcycle police intent on dispersing this gathering of three people, which seems like a Colombian broken windows policy taken to the extreme. Upon the pretext that their motorcycle cannot be parked on the sidewalk – even though it is essentially on a wide plaza that is completely empty, and that we are the only living beings around leads me to believe the police are taking the approach of mitigating any potential negative interaction that may occur with a foreigner.
Just a few blocks west of the convention centre is another wide concrete plaza with extravagantly-designed modern buildings, a skateboard park, open-air exercise equipment intended to attract the masses for recreational purposes, although there seem to be no takers at this point. The good thing is that the city provides such facilities to begin with. Further to the north and below the plaza, dirt roads are flanked by single-story, brightly painted adobe structures ensconced in a leafy canopy.
Across the street is a large cemetery that takes up a city block, the brick walls covered in provocative graffiti, the women selling flowers yelling at me for daring to take photos of their flowers and do something unethical with them when I return to my country. I am so sure! And yet as per the words of the security personnel at the convention centre, I should be as cautious here as everywhere else in the city when it comes to waving my camera around.
I am told the Ipanema neighborhood is the place to be, full of enticing boutiques and restaurants, even set at a higher location that is cooler than the centre. The taxi driver is happy to take me to the Metro Santa Lucia which apparently marks some important part of the neighborhood. It takes some time to get out of his car, however, as he is intent on mining me for information as to how to get out of Colombia and into Canada.
He is obviously a taxi driver, has years of experience as baker and in fact can do anything. But without a professional designation I am not sure how welcoming Canada would be, although it is probably more welcoming under Trudeau than other governments. Research the subject on the Canadian embassy website, I tell him repeatedly – as welcome as you would be in Canada, I am just not an authority on the subject. It seems the drive to leave is exacerbated by the reality of who is likely to win in the upcoming Colombian presidential elections, which will skew the country either to the right or to the left, but definitively away from the centre.
The shopping mall offers a welcome respite from the tribulations of everyday Neiva for a grand total of a few moments. Circling the upper floor with the generic food court found in every mall in the world makes me want to be anywhere but here. Outside, I return to Calle 8 which returns all the way back to the city centre, although the route is lengthy, and lined by numerous, very large gated condominium complexes which I can in theory understand the appeal of, but beyond their spaciousness, modernity, and vague appeal to romantic Spanish locales, are utterly characterless.
Plodding along in the blazing heat, I fail to see how the marginal increase in elevation would make the area any cooler, because I am certainly not feeling it here. Nor are there any stores, bakeries, cafes, or anything for that matter but the same walled condos, over and over, baking under the blazing sun. In the distance, the large apartment blocks I saw yesterday that come as somewhat of a shock on the outskirts of a smaller Colombian city. Or is Neiva really that small?
Eventually, the usual urban fare emerges on Calle 8, but far from ostentatious, the petit outlets clean, evoking a sense of tidiness and propriety that befits this proper neighborhood, less endowed than its cohort further to the east, but nonetheless. Closer to town yet, more green, the street somewhat cooler, and as the road continues descending, more of a sense of character also, more of a human element, the suburbs dropping down below towards the north visible through a screen of foliage.
The road descends to a spacious, modern bakery, with a tiled terrace surrounding the lengthy vitrines in which the typical baked goods are displayed. From viewing the display cases, I would not place much faith in what the bakery offers, but the physical space itself is impressive to spend time in. Drinks fountains contain juices of carrot, gulupa, a passionfruit-like fruit, and some other fruit, but the gulupa has me spellbound, given its exotic nature, and incredible flavour, especially at this ice-cold temperature, especially when it is this hot. Having spent hours walking in the baking heat, continual rehydration is imperative, and Colombia is a paradise for tropical fruit juices served typically very cold and fresh.
I recognize the plaza ahead, which confirms that indeed I am indeed in the El Altico neighborhood, Calle 7 a block over. What I hadn’t realized when I saw the plaza at night was that it fronts the decommissioned railway station. And sure enough, behind a screen of bushes, several brightly-painted wagons of the original train are lined up on a remaining segment of track. Signs indicate that the train may be used as a restaurant of sorts, apropos for this hip area.
Tempted to pull out my camera and take photos, I see a group of people loitering under the shade of a stocky ceiba tree and decide not to. From a distance, in any case. I return to the train when I see a motorcycle with police appear on the scene, but beyond dispersing the people at the ceiba, they wheel over to me to tell me in no uncertain terms that I should not be waving a camera around on the street here. And not just because of the people loitering in front of the train station, but because of the prevalence of motorbike-based theft. I tell them I try my best to stay farther from the curve and keep moving, that I only pulled my camera out when I saw them, but they would rather see me keep moving – without the camera in sight.
I would like to wander along Calle 7 and take more photos, but the experience feels spooked after the encounter with the police officers. But then the street hardly looks as impressive during the day as it does in the evening with the bright lights glowing through the trees, the Latin music blaring from the sound systems, the mariachis dressed up, and the terraces brimming with revellers. A young motorcyclist assures me that Colombians have a bit of a love affair with mariachi music, which I find quite hilarious.
I had intended on taking a taxi back to the hotel, but seeing the towers of the cathedral in the distance, it is obvious that the centre of town is not that far away. And it’s not as Neiva is as dangerous as I am continually being reminded of! And only a few blocks further, the best discovery of the day, the Parque de la Musica, a modern public complex dedicated to the promotion of local musical talent. The central portion of the complex includes an outdoor seating area painted in swaths of colours of the Colombian flag, matched overhead on the staggered awning covering the seating area. At the front of the complex is a modern structure composed of grey stone with terse design components, the paths lining the garden in front lined with dainty flowers.
I can hear strains of what sounds like Schoenberg emanating from the side of the complex, but it can’t be … perhaps the musicians practicing some classical standards have unintentionally mutated into something far more modern. But that is quickly forgotten at the sight of a young couple practicing hip-hop dance moves to provocative Latin soul-hip hop fusion music, the young man stopping the music after a short burst of energy, discussing with his friend, then starting again with another even deeper piece.
His exuberant dance continues alone and unabated when she leaves, the music becoming deeper and more intense with every track, his movements more dramatic and complex in response to the music. He tells me he is an aspiring hip hop dancer, wanting to emulate his American brethren, but he is drawing from far deeper traditions, given the Afro-Latin underpinnings of his music.
I continue towards the centre, the parque now close by and the sky dark and brooding with a heavy cloud cover, the illumination and tone of central Neiva completely different. Unexpectedly, the city has achieved a magical, introspective quality in the course of the day’s exploration. The buildings housing the banks in the area I am walking through are somehow evocative and brooding, especially devoid of the usual blaring traffic, crowds and punishing heat.
I had high hopes to imbue my last evening in Neiva with some sublime dining experience, but given that it is almost 10 pm and I have no intention of roaming the streets on the far side of town, looking for some pretentious burger joint that may still be open, I settle on the Gran Pollo Asadero a block from the plaza, as it is close, the food is acceptable, and it is open 24 hours a day.
And the food is not only acceptable, the staff is bent on making the dining experience a good one. The space is actually expansive and brightly-lit, atmosphere being lent by the welcome torrential downpour, the tail end of which peters out as I scurry back under the awnings for a final night of writing at the Onyx hotel.