Monday, November 27, 2006

Mountains of chow mein

The city of Bogotá, Colombia, is built on an ancient lake bed. The sediments forming the bottom of this prehistoric lake form a flat area, or sabana that sits at about 8,600 feet above sea level between large mountain ranges. The city is crammed up against the mountains of the Eastern side of the sabana, and as it has grown, the city has spread out far to the North and South. When my parents arrived there separately in the early 1950's, there were about 300,000 people in the city. Now there are over 8 million.

In some areas of the sabana, mountain tops protrude from the flat plain. The Suba mountain is like a whale's back, humped before submerging again in the millennial ooze of the sabana. The mountain used to have a line of trees running along the top of it that from certain perspectives reminded me of Queequeeg's mohawk (as I pictured it, anyway). Lately it seems to be more encrusted with the barnacles of suburban sprawl.

The most memorable part of the mountains is how different they were from day to night. Daylight showed them fuzzy with eucalyptus and pine trees, slowly merging with the strange vegetation of the high-altitude páramo: strange plants that looked like they belonged in the Devonian era. On our rare walks up there, before it became an act of suicide to wander into the territory of leftist guerillas, we discovered many wonderful waterfalls among the varied rock formations. These thin streams drenched the surrounding blue lichen-encrusted trees with a frigid spray.

The most striking daylight feature of the mountains were their scars. These scars were either fire scars, dark black and spread out over the mountain crests like the ones that dropped cinders into my cradle in 1964, or bright yellow scars at the mountain's base, left by cement plant excavations inexorably gnawing away at the sandstone buttresses in order to build the city below. One only had to look at the scar pattern of the Eastern skyline to know where one was in the city.

By night, the mountains were completely different. The extent of the barrios' reach into the mountains became clear. Thousands upon thousands of clear lightbulbs twinkled in the freezing air, reaching up in sweeping arcs across the slopes. Because the sky was jet-black, the mountains disappeared, and it often looked like a trail of sparks from a firework had been frozen, suspended against the sky. When there were fires, the main impression was that the bright flames were much nearer than reality, and could be quite frightening. My memories of the largest fires, during the early 1960's are probably much contaminated by a series of black and white photographs that my father took of them.


One drive in the mountains spelled the end of Chinese food for me for several decades. Very early on, perhaps still in the 1960's, I was alone with my father on a drive down to the town of Villavicencio. Villavo, as it is known, is only a few tens of miles from Bogotá. By air, anyway. By land, in our old green Jeep Willy's, it was several hundred miles over some of the most fantastic landscape imaginable. Tiny whitewashed towns clung stolidly to green cliffs, and townspeople would glare over their tables covered in empty brown bottles of Bavaria beer at the passing cars. Between the clouds below, one might spot the towns on the other side of the valley, which could only be got to by going back to Bogotá and taking a different route, or by braving side roads that more often than not petered out into boulder strewn horse-trails.

The approach to Villavo and its cursed Chinese restaurant is still spectacular. After hours of winding around on cut-backs and only being able to see a few miles across the valley, the Western front of the Andes is amazingly abrupt. One single curve, and suddenly there is an expanse of flat land far below spreading out as far as the eye can see. It was my first sight of the llanos, or the plains. This was the "wild West" of Colombia, where there were still whole new economies waiting to be developed: cocaine and petroleum. But in those days it was still the land of the cattle ranchers, beautiful harp music, and my first taste of chow mein.

I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but I do remember it was pretty typical of the region: fluorescent lamps hung with bare wires from the steel beams holding up the Eternit tile ceiling, casting their blue light on high-gloss paint walls, and onto a dull green, white and red tile floor. Formica and aluminium tables were surrounded by spindly chairs covered in red plastic. A calendar with a see-through Jesus, posters for Marlboro and more Bavaria beer were on the wall, along with an inevitable Chinese character or two for "health" or "prosperity."

What is permanently etched into my mind is the taste of the pepper I bit into that day. Some fiery combination of vinegar and capsicum was lurking in an innocent green sliver, and my throat went into paroxysms very early on into the meal. Typical of a young eater's response, I refused to touch anything else on the plate. I don't remember the details, but I do remember my father's annoyance, and attempts to get me to try something else.

I did not eat Chinese food again for many, many years. Exactly when I started again is lost - it was a non-event compared to the pepper incident. I have been back to Villavicencio several times since then, and I always look for Chinese restaurants in which to eat, in order to finally reconquer the town.

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