The matter on which I judge people is their willingness,
or ability, to handle contradiction.
~Christopher Hitchens, 1949 – 2011
“Several years ago, I discovered the essence of Bogota in its oldest and most traditional neighborhood: La Candelaria,” our new friend Luis Guillermo Torres told us.
“The air, light, silence, streets, plazas, churches, houses and the inhabitants of the area where the city was founded in the 16th century remain the very essence of an urban center that in the last fifty years has grown rapidly,” he explained.
“I decided to own a place in the heart of the neighborhood,” he declared. “A quiet place to get away from the noise and rush of everyday life of office and home. A country house in the middle of the city!”
I was introduced to Luis Guillermo Torres by Maria Isabel Rohmer, who owns the Cartagena apartment my husband Tom and I stayed in during our visit to that Caribbean Colonial city. In the months prior to our visit to Colombia, I made our arrangements via email with Maria Isabel Rohmer, who now works for UNESCO in Paris. In asking her for recommendations, she insisted we must see Bogota, which we had not planned to visit. Having learned the benefits of taking the advice I’ve asked for, Tom and I revised our itinerary to include a stay in Colombia’s capital.
Maria Isabel’s referral to Luis Guillermo Torres was like a key to the city, reminiscent of the Old World custom of formal letters of introduction to society for 18th century travelers. Through him, we got to know not only the quixotic neighborhood of La Candelaria, but a bevy of friendly and fascinating Colombians.
Luis Guillermo Torres was a charming and attentive host who took us under his wing, plotting out our days and Bogota’s historic sites on a beautifully-drawn map. He explained at one time he served as the president of Sociedad Amigos de la Candelaria. The group collected the street names of the ancient neighborhood, commissioning the creation of an original map, of which only 20 copies were made. Luis Guillermo Torres has an original framed in his apartment and the version he gave us was a later reproduction.
We learned that he lived in the U.S. for many years, attending prep school in Princeton, then going to Georgetown to earn a degree in economics. He went on to work at the World Bank, returning to Colombia for a banking career, then joining Colombian TV station RCN as a finance executive..
Through Luis Guillermo Torres, we met architect Simón Vélez, visiting his home in La Candelaria. Simón lives in a sprawling family compound behind doors scrawled with graffiti. We were buzzed in and greeted by Simón’s daughter Maria Velez, who explained he was en route home. We gladly accepted her offer of a tour and were delighted by the property’s magical ambience of salvaged ancient stone arches, bamboo beams and secret courtyards—the artistic aura of the immense place was unimaginable from the outside.
Maria Velez gave us some of her background as we wandered through Velez home.
“I am 24 years old and I was born in Manizales, a small and elitist city located in the coffee area of Colombia,” she said. “I lived there for fifteen years and then I went with my mom to Arizona, the most racist state of the United States. In huge discomfort with that, I left my mom and came back to my country with my dad, who had this wonderful and original house in La Candelaria where I use to spend my vacations. That´s the way I came here, during a rebel age, adapting perfectly to the unconventional way of living.”
I learned Maria Velez is a writer, and later invited her to share her impressions of her adopted neighborhood.
To live in la Candelaria means to feel comfortable in a place that isn´t modern, that is not quite neat, not quite secure, not quite organized. It means to have a disposition toward a hippie life. It means not being absorbed by the desire to show off, be glorified or acclaimed by people who compliment your house, your car or any kind of luxury. It just can´t happen like that. Not here. Not in this neighborhood full of contrasts. If somebody has a wonderful house it must be inside the modest walls, underneath the simple roofs. Like a secret. There’s no need to yell it. Being humble is a rule that everyone respects, the rule that governs and keeps the Candelaria´s atmosphere intact.
First, not being reserved would be an act of terrorism against the simple, colonial ideal of humility that has persisted for hundreds of years. And second, it will be a mindless action that can awaken negative desires in people who live around and can´t afford luxury. But here, in La Candelaria, even the richest people have a sense of reality. They experience every day Colombia´s force and frailty. They don´t live in an apart island where everything is green, settled and arranged, where people are always full of grace and carriage.
No. Here, you can breathe Colombia´s authentic air. Everyone lives together. Everything happens. The richest guy lives next door to a gangster. The biggest house is in front of the smallest. From your house of comfort you can hear some shouts of people being robbed. The beautiful streets are adorned with garbage. La Candelaria is a place of union, of naked existence, where grace and disgrace live together to show reality. It is a place of contradictions and it is that constant contrast that makes it so special.
But, despite the antagonistic emotions that La Candelaria can awake in me, they all come from the same root, the same feeling of love. Here, when you walk, you feel the ground talking, the walls hiding truths, the hills up there, very near us, watching. When you open the window you breathe a bit of mystical wind, a bit of ancestral wisdom, of ancient memory. When I walk, I ask myself what is behind that colonial architecture? Why was Bogotá settled here?
I love to walk and suddenly hear some drums, a guitar, some people singing, the floor shaking from a concert, from some dancing classes. I love the colors, the small houses, the humble roofs, the smell of incense, the handicraft work in the stores, the reggae music like a soundtrack of the neighborhood. I love to be in front of a house wondering what possible mysteries hide behind, whether it´s a big and majestic construction in the inside. I love to see people without pretentions, foreigners with eyes wide open, being curious, contemplating. I love La Candelaria because it is real, because is like a town where everyone is loyal to their neighbor. I love this social and cultural mixture where people don´t look like toys made up from the same factory.
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