The Alluring Contradictions of Bogota La Candelaria Neighborhood

People that live here appreciate the small things. My dad says that foreigners just come because is cheap, but that´s not entirely true, there are other, much more cheaper places, but they would rather live here because there is something peculiar with these colonial echoes. Because, somehow, the old spirit of La Candelaria, the small and pretty colonial roofs, the surrounding hills, the cultural mix, the non-arrogant faces that match perfectly with their soul. And they chose it, accepting the possible risks. Because yes, there are possible risks. It´s not like you need to be in constant alarm like a maniac, but you do must need to take care, to be a little bit careful every time you go out. But you really learn to do it, and more than that, you really developed the ability of relaxing in front of the danger. People here, despite the possible violence that is around, live carefree.

We too found La Candelaria to be a study in contradictions. And seeing the neighborhood in the context of an adjoining area of Bogota only provided more contrast.

One day, Luis Guillermo Torres and his friend Juana took Tom and me to the Bogota Country Club for lunch. The club is located in North Bogota, a leafy and affluent suburb about a 40-minute drive from La Candelaria, where Luis Guillermo Torres resides when not at his “country home.” The perfectly-coiffed matrons and elegant men enjoying a late leisurely lunch were an entirely different demographic from La Candelaria’s young student and inner-city working class population.

Juana later introduced me to her nephew Gabe Ponce de Leon, 32, who now lives in La Candelaria. I asked him to share a little of his personal history.

“My grandmother took the kids from Bogotá to New York City in the 1950s,” he said. “So my father and aunts grew up in NYC, though were born here. Mother was a straight-up gringa. I was born here, but moved to Brooklyn when I was three.”

Gabe Ponce de Leon graduated from Georgetown School of Foreign Service. He spent about five years in Rio de Janeiro, and has had had a lot of different work experiences–photography, journalism, NGO, business, and tons
of odd jobs.

“When my grandmother moved back to Bogotá from New York about two years ago, I came to La Candelaria for a visit, and wound up staying 5-6 months. Then I came back for another stint of a few months, and
have now been here since August of last year.”

Gabe Ponce de Leon is another talented writer, who also generously shared his observations with me.

Of my first night what I remember is the chill. Though I doubt the temperature outside even dipped below fifty, and the apartment came furnished with a couple wool blankets, I cannot recall ever feeling so cold in bed. The following morning, the building’s caretaker ordered me a bundle of firewood from one of the local vendors, a random nail-ridden assortment of scrap wood, broken branches, sawed-off furniture limbs, and floor planks as weathered as the neighborhood itself. Treaded on for centuries, they could have originated on a Spanish galleon for all I knew. I felt at fault almost setting such ancient debris to blaze. The vendor, however, had neglected to include any suitable kindling in the bag. So I passed another night above a frigid hearth.

By day the Candelaria is temperate as any neighborhood in the city, but its night has to be the coldest. Though elevation must play some role, many of these buildings predate modern amenities such as insulated walls or centralized heating. It’s sort of a hustle acquiring satisfactory firewood to stay warm. That first vendor, for instance, had a knack for coming through with thick tree branches and other bulky scraps, but never serviceable kindling. Another specialized in just the opposite: small branches, twigs, dried brush, bits and pieces of rubble. In the evening, he would buzz every apartment in the building. His bundles were smaller than those of other sellers. His health was not great. I think he drank. It’s been a while since I saw him around.

I discovered that the grocery store down the block sold dismembered fruit and vegetable crates, a few bucks per bundle. Though quick to burn up they got a fire going.

For a couple months, I lit my fireplace just about every evening. Then my grandmother gave me a hot water pouch to sleep with, which kept me even warmer after turning in for the night. Before long, I could coax potent flames out of scrap wood any shape or size: a splintered baluster, crown molding, or moldy old beam. Even moist wood I could ignite. Rain is, after all, the perennial curse of this town, heavy skies, clouds a regular backdrop to life. Some mornings a dense fog conceals the mountaintops to the east: the resulting visual is almost mythic, like a forest overspread with mist rising from the heart of the city. But when it really pours, the streets will flood. Everything gets damp, for days on end you may barely glimpse the sun. What I am getting at is: if you find a wood seller whose supply always arrives dry, he is a keeper. Ditto one who integrates both large and small pieces in each bundle. Dismiss the sellers who disassemble police barricades, in general those who peddle painted debris. And always scan for old nails before dipping your hand in a bag.

 I do not know where they sleep, or collect their discarded merchandise, but a couple months back after a decrepit building collapsed I spotted three or four vendors scavenging the rubble. In another neighborhood they might trade in used bottles and cans, but in historic downtown these rugged, wandering salesmen dedicate themselves to the vital enterprise of keeping the neighborhood warm by the glowing embers of its own crumbled past.

No sooner had I reached the pinnacle of my prowess than the nightly ritual of kindling fires grew tiresome, rote. Lost its novelty. I began to sleep with just the hot water pouch. I rarely used the fireplace anymore. But leaving my building in the evening, I would sometimes catch a whiff of a neighbor’s smoking chimney. For some reason, that charred fragrance drifting through the cool air always transports me back to past winters in my native borough.

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