The Intrepid Starling

Chapter 9: Big Hearts

It’s only a 1,000-mile jump across the Caribbean, but Bogota feels worlds away from Montego Bay. Brisk air cools Sam’s cheeks and she can no longer clutch humidity hanging in the air. There are no tour operators destined for white-sand resorts lining the corridors, only businessmen and an occasional backpacker hustling to hail a taxi. The feeling of sunny vacation is replaced by big-city determination.

Her taxi passes low buildings and wide boulevards to reach the heart of the city—La Candelaria. The old neighborhood’s cobblestones jostle her seat while she passes blue and yellow buildings popping against a grey sky. There is a certain quaintness to the two-story houses with their tiny balconies. They hold a whisper of New Orleans, but there are no sounds on these streets to match The Big Easy’s frivolity. Instead, it’s quiet and cold with the promise of rain in these early morning hours.

After checking into a modest but tidy hotel, Sam climbs back into a taxi and asks the driver to take her to the base of Monserrate. Visiting the mountain’s peak will take her closer to the ominous clouds, but it also promises a birds-eye view of the city she’s calling home for the week.

The track up the mountain is so steep the cable car is specially built to accommodate its slant. Four platforms fill the car in a series of tall, wide steps.  Sam enters the first platform so she can watch as the city shrinks below. Above her, in amphitheater-style rows, the rest of the passengers fill the space with their orchestra of languages. People from all over the world are here for a pilgrimage, or simply for one of the restaurants promising spectacular views.

The cable car starts up the hill with a gentle heave. An elderly woman grasps at Sam’s jacket sleeve to steady herself against the movement. “Disculpeme cariña!” she excuses herself with a throaty laugh.

 “No se preocupe, señora,” Sam smiles to assure her it’s no trouble. The deferential language feels soft on her tongue and in between her cheeks. It’s been nearly three years since she last spoke it with her grandmother. Three years since prayers in the same reverent tones were uttered at abuela’s graveside. 

 Suddenly, Sam is no longer focused on the buildings transforming into miniature below her. Instead, she is in her grandma’s kitchen four year earlier listening to mariachi music and chopping onions. “What do you want to do, cariña?” the memory of her grandmother is asking. “If accounting feels like a living slumber, what do you want instead?” She is squeezing round balls of dough into small discs and rolling them flat.  Here, in her grandmother’s wonderland of white flour and fresh cilantro, Sam dares to dream of a world beyond spreadsheets.

"One idea,” Sam begins and pauses to meet the gentle woman’s curious eyebrows. “One idea is to create a design blog—you know, a website about decorating—and show how people make home around the world.” Sam stops chopping and leans forward to explain. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to understand how traditions influence daily living in other countries? How mementoes from festivals and holidays linger in the house as decorations?” She glances around the kitchen and points to a skull painted with colorful flowers. “Like here,” Sam points with a knife, “these beautiful objects for El Día de los Muertos are not only to honor those who have gone before, but to celebrate life as well.” Her grandmother tilts her head and nods. “The site could show how others live, how they celebrate and express love and express themselves.” Sam looks down to straighten an onion before looking up again. “This is the idea that keeps calling me. This is what keeps me up at night brainstorming and wondering and planning.”

“When will you go?” her grandma asks as though Sam already has the ticket. Abuela’s certainty is contagious and Sam begins to believe, for the first time, that such a venture might be possible.

 “Well, I can’t just leave everything,” Sam dismisses the idea with a nervous laugh. Who quits a job at her age? Who tosses four years of schooling and annual bonuses out the window? It simply isn’t done in her world.

Her grandma reaches across the counter to take Sam’s hand.  She squeezes it as if working dough for another tortilla.  “Go, cariña. Everyone says life is short. I’m here with my eighty years—my eighty very short years—to tell you it’s true. Go now, while your wings are strong and you can fly wherever the wind takes you. One day, your bones will ache like mine and you won’t want to fly anymore. Go now.”

The cable car lurches to a stop and Sam turns to see they’ve reached the top.

 If only abuela could see me now, Sam blinks away tears. After four years of saving and planning, she’s finally made the leap and landed here with a bird’s-eye view of the world below. From above, downtown looks small and manageable, like a Lego city she could take to show-and-tell.  From the center, shorter buildings stretch outward to fill the enormous valley.  This capital city is ringed by stately mountains—not a jagged necklace of hills like Yaounde. A series of proud peaks surround the city like a massive stadium. Roofs and roads and swaths of green fill up the center with a constant, colossal spectacle.

“Que tenga un buen viaje,” the elderly woman pats Sam’s arm and wishes her a pleasant journey before stepping out of the car.

 “Gracias.” Sam’s throat tightens with nostalgia.  The words are a perfect echo of her grandmother’s voice.

 

 After a misty-eyed wander through the church and gardens, Sam heads back to La Candelaria. The city’s cultural center holds much of what she hopes to see this afternoon, chief among them the Butero Museum. The artist’s work promises whimsy and lightness to balance out her weighed-down heart.

Sam supposes she should have expected this feeling.  The only Spanish-speaking country on the journey is bound to make her miss the barely-five-foot woman who was such a giant in her life. She considers this on the ride to the museum where she is confronted with another giant altogether.

There in the museum lobby, a massive bronze hand greets her with a frozen-in-time wave. The middle finger nearly touches the ceiling. The palm, exaggerated to look like a fluffy lady’s derriere, blocks the view of the staircase behind it. Sam adores the silliness of it—the lovely ridiculousness of this huge hand just filling up this elegant entryway. She stifles a laugh and looks to the guards for a shared reaction. Their eyes are on the street. This sculpture, big enough to cradle them in its palm, is merely a backdrop for their daily duties.

The rooms are full of pieces that continue to force the corners of her mouth upward. Voluptuous nudes and round-bellied hunters gaze sedately from the canvases. Each of their features is ballooned out to stretch the seams of their painted clothes, if they’re wearing any at all. The cats and horses are equally overstuffed, as if by an overzealous taxidermist. Pineapples in the still lifes look like watermelons and the bananas like zucchini.

 Botero’s Mona Lisa smiles back at Sam with shared amusement at the collection. It’s quite something, isn’t it? she asks with raised, pencil-thin brows.  Sam can’t help but mirror her imperceptible grin. Yes, she silently tells the portrait with a face of mostly cheek and chin. It’s exactly what I needed.

 

After its mix of ups and downs, Sam’s first day in Bogota ends with a literal bang.  

Following advice from the front desk, she joins an organized group to play the game of Tejo. “You’ll love it,” the concierge promises. “Just remember to wear earplugs.”

Sam crosses the street to meet the group in a neighboring hotel lobby. She reaches the door just as a blonde woman in a cowboy hat approaches from the opposite direction. The woman smiles and opens the door for Sam, waving her in.

“Thank you so much,” Sam says.

 “Oh, you’re American,” the woman drawls, “are you here for the game?”

“Yes. Ready with my sports equipment and all,” Sam holds out her hand to show two small plugs of orange foam.

“Me, too!” the woman displays a plastic case with blue earplugs and then tucks it into her pocket. “I’m Sandy,” she extends her hand.

“Sam. So nice to meet you. Any idea what we need these for?” Sam asks and tucks her own packet away.

“No idea, honey. Let’s go find out.” Sandy links her elbow in Sam’s and they enter the lobby together.

“So, that is how you win a game of Tejo!” they hear the organizer say when they find the group standing by the bar.

Sandy looks at her watch. “Are we so late?”

“Bienvenidos!” He greets them above the heads of the others. “We started a little early, but there is no problem. I will explain you everything on the way to the court.” He moves to the front of the small crowd to shake their hands and lead everyone out the door.

Anton is stocky with salt and pepper scruff and two gold teeth. He walks quickly, but pauses often to demonstrate aspects of the game. “You know corn hole?” he asks them.

“’Course,” Sandy waves her hand knowingly and Sam shakes her head.

“Oh, you know it,” Sandy tells her. “That game where you throw bean bags into holes cut from a wooden board.”

“Oh, yes!  Bean bag toss,” Sam lights up.  She loves the game.

“Yes, only we don’t use bean bags here,” Anton corrects. “We use metal discs.” He hoists his arm back and forth to demonstrate their heft.  The aim of the game, they learn, is to lob the disc down a long alley and hit the center of a clay-filled target.

“If you hit the gunpowder, you get extra points,” the organizer tells them just as they reach their destination.

“Gunpowder?” Sam asks Sandy as they walk through a bar and out the backdoor into a huge covered court.

Small groups are tossing cupcake-sized discs at angled boxes filled with clay. Pops, cracks and hollers fill the place. It sounds like her childhood neighborhood on the Fourth of July. Anton brings a small bucket filled with folded white papers to show Sam.  These are the source of the noise. Each tiny envelope is filled with gunpowder and lined up around the center of each target. “You see,” Anton, gives her one to inspect. “If you hit the powder and target together, you have an extra point!”

Sandy is already wiping clay from her hands when Sam joins the group. “D’ya hear that?” Sandy’s grin is wide. “Pop-Zam on the first try! If only my boyfriend could see me now.” She high fives Sam and then plunks a disc in her hand. “You’re up, sweetheart.”

 Sam’s first shot lands with a silent thud in the corner of the target.

 “One more time, now.” Sandy is by her side with another dusty disc.

 This time, the disc lands with an explosive crack.

“There it is!” Sandy jumps up and down and gives Sam a hug. “Let’s take this place down, Sugar.”

 Whether it’s beginner’s luck or first-night-in-Bogota magic, as Sandy claims, the duo wins three matches in a row—the first against a pair of older gentleman, one of them wearing Sandy’s cowboy hat throughout the game; the second against two brothers who empty enough beer bottles to cover a tabletop; and the third against two women who dance salsa with Sandy and Sam as much as they play the game. It’s warm inside and deafening with laughter, music and tiny explosions. Everyone grows hoarse from shouting and Sam’s cheeks hurt from smiling.  As the night goes on, giddy exhaustion sets in. It’s heady and hot and heavenly.

On the way back to the hotel, Anton congratulates them as Sandy and Sam walk arm-in-arm beside him. “You have very good arms!” he tells them.  “Never do I take visitors to play this game and they win.”

 “Pardon?” They ask in unison.  Sam’s ears are ringing. She can see Anton is happy about something, but she can’t hear a word.

“I say, never before are the tourists winning.  Everyone is so surprised.”

“We won a prize?” Sandy stops and grabs Anton’s shoulder.

The patient man smiles, shakes his head and looks in Sandy’s ear. She touches it gingerly to see if something’s wrong and then begins to laugh. “Dios, mio.  We totally forgot,” she says and pulls the never-used earplugs out of her pocket.

“Tomorrow,” Sam pulls out her own unworn set. “Now we have them for tomorrow night.”

"That's what I'm talkin' 'bout honey." Sandy hugs her. "This city won't know what hit it."

Anton only laughs and shakes his head.

 

Back in the hotel and warm under the duvet, Sam massages her stiffening shoulder. Her ears are still buzzing, but her happy heart is humming louder.  

As she drifts to sleep, she wonders if the artist, Bortero, ever painted a heart. If he did, it must certainly be oversized and bursting at the seams—overflowing with contentment much as hers is now.

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