Sunday, June 15, 2008

Letter from El Dorado

What's Colombia like? It's cool. Like 10 to 15 degrees Celcius every day in the capital city of Bogota, way high-up where that conurbation of 8 million hugs the tops of the Andes mountains. They always did say I had my head in the clouds....

It's a swingin’ little nightspot named Kathmandu—where you'll find hookahs, belly dancers, and Latin American businessmen on expense accounts. It's El Tambor—our favorite picnic place, just outside Bogota, where they serve real campesino fare, including such ultra-treif menu-items as pigs' intestines (don't tell the rabbi). Delicioso! Only a few tens of millions of pesos per person, too.

And a couple of hours by car outside the city (down roads patrolled not long ago by guerillas and paramilitarios), it's the mysterious, verdant Guatavita—sacred lake of the Muisca people. For centuries, the Muisca are said to have periodically consigned raft-loads of gold to the bottom of this water-filled meteor's crater, in ceremonies of ritual sacrifice, or what the anthropologist Marcel Mauss famously taught us to refer to as potlatch. Expenditure without reserve. Glorious waste! Useless spending affirmed as such; acceptance of loss of what is most precious, without possibility of recovery or return on the investment.

Or was it? According to our tour guide (although I might have misunderstood, my Spanish is poor), today the algaefied accretion of millennia remains as unfathomably remote to modern science (despite attempts by annoying fools to drain the lake, either to steal the stuff or, in one egregious instance of ressentiment-cum-schadenfreude, to prove its non-existence) as it once proved inaccessible to conquistadors (who took almost everything else). In fact, the mound of castoff valuables is detectable empirically (insofar as it is detectable at all that way) only second-hand—implied, some say, by the occasional odd ripple, at weird angles, across the water’s otherwise glassy surface (an "index," as C. S. Pierce would say, of what must lie in the path of currents below, though hardly a portrait, much less a map).

They knew what to do with their precious things, the Muisca chiefs! Don't you think so? No pearls before swine for them, at least. For as legend has it (I think I heard our tour guide explain), it's that tangled mass of an artificial underwater mountain of glittering baubles, trinkets, and fetishes, which yet to this day keeps the sacred lagoon's placid visage so preternaturally calm, serene and—even in the wake of the Muisca's tragic passing, long ago—unperturbed in any weather.

It's not all dark depths and endless reserve, though. I'm also informed that, occasionally, on the brightest of sunny days, summer mornings usually, when the air is crystal clear and the barometric pressure is just right, or when the moon is full and the Andean Spectacled Bear is in the tops of the trees once more, at such times a lucky visitor's eye sometimes catches a momentary glint of the purest amber luster, reflected from out of Guatavita's auriferous lacustrine depths—usually without even realizing it!

Colombia, te quiero!

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