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The Most Dangerous City

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 Time.”)

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.

The Black Bouquet                                             

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 found.

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.