After four days we’re ready
to fly to Bogota where we will spend two days before leaving for California.
In Bogota we are warned yet again not to leave our hotel room alone. We
have reservations at the Candlearia Hotel. Originally I was to give a talk in
Bogota but this too has been canceled due to Juan Alberto’s continued
absence. At the Candlearia Joan
and I are shown a damp, moldy room with no windows. We wanted to leave, but
had no idea where else to go. It was 5pm. Well, it would be for only two
nights. We figured we could stand it. After checking in, we called the number
we had been given for Marta Segura at the National Museum. Marta said she had
been expecting my call, (what a relief!) and would be over in twenty minutes.
Oh joy! One and a half hours later she came by taxi and took us to her
apartment for dinner. (During the next two days we came to understand “Marta
Marta spoke English very well
and was delightful and full of information and fun. She took us to meet her
big, hulking husband, Joan (a male name in Spanish pronounced like the English
name ‘John.’ My sister Joan’s name is pronounced ‘Joanne’ in Spanish
although they are spelled exactly alike.) Joan, Marta’s husband, is an
ex-military officer, unemployed for the last three years and despite his
somewhat threatening demeanor, has the personality of a pussycat. He could
barely speak one word of English, but this did not stop him from trying.
The two of them drank glasses
full of whiskey and tequila, while we drank tea and wine. Joan and Joan made
good use of the Spanish to English dictionary and Marta and I talked and
talked until the phone began to ring and she received long distance calls
which she took right there in the tiny concrete living room, chattering away
in Spanish while Joan, Joan and I arduously worked the phrase book.
The next day, Marta insisted
that her husband accompany us on a tour around Bogota, saying that we
absolutely could not go alone. Tired because we could not get warm enough to
sleep in our damp room, we tramped on foot all over the city and arranged to
meet Marta for lunch at 1:30. Again it was Marta-time. In the restaurant bar
we waited with Joan trying once again to make dictionary small talk (very
small talk), so starved we could barely speak, thinking that at any minute
Marta would arrive. She did, an hour and three quarters later.
She was in high spirits and full of news about Juan Alberto Gaviria.
We were overjoyed to see her and gratefully sat down to order, but our
ordeal was not over. The service was agonizingly slow and bad, so Marta was
served immediately and we watched her eat her meal from start to finish before
Joan, Joan, and I were served a morsel of anything. No hint, suggestions, wild
waving to the waiter, made a bit of difference, nor did Marta or Joan seem to
think it the least unusual.
Nonetheless we liked Marta
and Joan very much. She was warm, intelligent and engaging and Joan had done
his very best to ensure that we not miss any of the sights of the city. We
found him sweet and self effacing and were touched by his obvious affection
for Marta. Marta had secured for us special permission to see the collection
of Botero paintings at the National Museum which was closed due to renovations
and we were allowed to hike around a construction site down long dusty
corridors to see the works. We learned that despite her good position, she too
had not been paid in many months because there was no money left in the budget
at the museum. Many people were working without salaries and they had gone
through their savings. Joan worked “odd jobs helping friends” to bring in
some money but they were uncertain as to where next month’s rent would be
Marta was the first to give
us any information about what had happened to Juan Alberto Gaviria. She told
us that he had received a bouquet of black flowers. In Colombia this is a
death threat and such deliveries are a common occurrence. Marta knew several
people who had received them. They are taken very seriously and there have
been killings. The police are of little help. Some people decide to stick it
out, carrying on with their work as before, and others, like Juan Alberto,
leave their jobs, home, and town immediately.
Marta explained that Juan
Alberto was in hiding, no one knew where; it could be out of the country.
Juan Alberto, she said, was a much loved and respected teacher and
curator. So what had happened? This
is what she knew. The previous month he had organized a group show of student
work around a political theme. One
of the students was unhappy about something - Marta didn’t know what. No one
knows where the death threat came from. It was felt that the unhappy student
may have had connections to something - the Mafia? the cartels? the military?
No one could say. Juan Alberto ran. We have not heard from him since.
Marta said she would let us know by email when she heard anything more.
When we told Marta our story
of the shooting in the street she surmised that we had witnessed an
interrupted carjacking or perhaps even an attempted kidnapping. The person
with the gun was most likely the owner of the car and he chased away the
thieves which was why no one took his gun away.
The police were not called because they were not needed. This was a
private matter. Juan Alberto Gaviria apparently did not call the police,
because they would not have been any help. He was left to fend for himself.
The professors, curators,
teachers and students we encountered were deeply committed to sharing their
culture and to learning all they could about art and artists in the wider
international community. They were willing to generously extend invitations to
me and to other artists to expand the horizons of both our worlds. We had the
sense that they were embarrassed for their country, ashamed and proud at the
same time, and attempting to survive in conditions that seem to be growing
increasingly worse. We marveled at their resilience, good humor and
hospitality, and we hoped the best for Juan Alberto.