Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Disappeared Theatres of Central Bogotá

The interior of the immense Teatro Olympia, which was also used as a skating rink and for religious services.

In 1970, Bogotá had about 100 independent functioning movie theatres, including many in the city center.
Today, few are left.

Sergio Becerra, an art professor at the Universidad de los Andes and ex-director of the Cinematica Distrital, believes the shift from independent theatres to home televisions and multiplexes attached to shopping malls, has robbed Bogotá of an important part of its culture. The old theatres, in addition to screening films, sometimes also doubled or tripled as skating rinks, churches and 

In a recent talk at the Casa de la Moneda Becerra described the shift to shopping mall cinema as inevitable, but lamentable. "The multiplexes are deplorable," he said. 

Perhaps the greatest loss for Bogotá was the demolition of the old Teatro Municipal, which was located beside the observatory behind the Presidential Palace. The theatre survived the Bogotazo riots triggered by the April 1948 assassination of politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan - who had made many memorable and fiery speaches in the theatre - only to be demolished by the city. 

"They did it to bury Gaitan's memory," Becerra said. 

Ironically, today, Bogotá's municipal theatre, located on Calle Septima and 23st St., is named after Gaitan. 

A few of the movie theatres in central Bogotá. 

Central Bogotá, land of movie theatres.

The Teatro Ecci on Calle 17, which no longer shows films, but holds events such as graduations.

The Teatro Municipal, marked by the red dot, was located near the presidential palace, beside the astronomical observatory. Politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan made many speeches there, and it survived the 1948 bogotazo riots only to be demolished by the city.

The classic Teatro Faenza, modeled after one in Italy, is being restored (slowly) by the Universidad Central. A grand art nouveau building built in 1924, it was Bogotá's first movie theatre. But it sank to showing porno films before finally closing in 2002.
The Teatro Mexico, across the street from the Faenza, also belongs to the Universidad Central and shows arts films.

The Teatro Jorge Eliecer Gaitan on Ave. Septima. But they don't show movies here.

The Teatro Pussycat on Ave. Septima, a holdover from the era when these blocks were part of the red light district. 

This handsome building on Carrera Septima across from the Avianca building looks like it was once a theatre. 

The disappeared Teatro Variedades on Carrera 7.

The Teatro Olympia. 

A porn theatre, on Calle 12, maintains downtown's film tradition. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Solving the Wor(l)d Games Mess

Which games are these really?

A surfer in flight. 
The World Games, going on right now in Cali, seem to be going pretty well sports-wise. At the games, held every four years, athletes from around the world compete in some 30 sports not included in the Olympics, including artistic roller skating, aerobic gymnastics, martial arts, ultimate frisbee, squash, rugby and bodybuilding.

It looks like fun, and is a great thing for the city of Cali - which can use positive press.

Unfortunately, the event has been marred, even overshadowed, by a ridiculous oversight. When winners examined their medals they discovered that the 'L' was missing, meaning they'd won honors not in the World Games, but the Word Games.

Games organizers are scrambling to deal with the silly error. Today, they promised to reissue all the medals.

Here, however, are my modest suggestions for making the best of this difficult situation.

1) Partner with world Scrabble, hangman and crossword puzzle competitions and give them the defective metals in exchange for any medals they may have mistakenly made with an extra 'L'.

The ultimate agony and ecstacy. 
2) Change the games' competition to Scrabble, hangman, crossword puzzles and spelling bees, to make the medals useful.

3) Replace the medals and say you've destroyed the defective ones - but save a few. In a few years, those 'Word Games' medals will be collectors items and can be auctioned off to finance the next World Games. (In fact, game officials plan to add the L to the medals with a laser beam.)

Meanwhile, the games go on. Colombia, boosted by hometown advantage, is doing well, in tenth place overall.

This looks like hockey, but it can't be.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mass for the Virgen de Carmen

Father Eduardo, of the nearby Egipto Church, performs mass in honor of the Virgen delCarmen, protector of drivers. 
This Sunday was the day of the Virgen del Carmen, protector of drivers. Since rhe Mercado de Egipto is a waiting spot for cargo trucks, it was an appropriate place for a mass honoring the virgin. 

Father Eduardo with holy water and wine.

Sprinkling believers with holy water. 
The neighborihoods surrounding the market are very poor and troubled by violence.

A hilltop cross in the hills behind the market. 
Local residents wait to be blessed below statues of the Virgin.
Believers hold out their hands during mass. 

Father Eduardo blesses an aged truck parked before the market. (Can he also make it stop polluting?)

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Erasing a Local Landmark?

Entrance to the Mercado de Egipto. 

The Egipto neighborhood's traditional market has operated for about as long as anybody can remember. It provides fresh, healthful fruits and vegetables, jobs for locals, income for campesinos and location for community events (such as this Sunday's mass for the Virgen del Carmen).

A woman who has sold in the market for about
40 years, as her mother did before her.
'I'm too old to move, she said.)
But water authorities plan to close the historic market, ending a neighborhood institution, with little public consultation or concern for those affected.

According to what I've heard second and third hand, Bogotá acueducto officials - the people who manage the city's water supply - are concerned about the stability of the market, which is built above the San Agustin River. Supposedly, the river is weakening the market's foundation. The officials' solution is to shut the market and send the vendors somewhere else.

On Sundays the market becomes more active, and
campesinos come from the countryside to sell chickens
and other things. 
But the people who sell in the Egipto Market are very modest people who live nearby and do not want to pay bus fare to sell in an unfamiliar place far from home. And the alternative market I've most heard mentioned - Mercado La Concordia in La Candelaria, has barely enough customers to support the sole fruit vendor there now. Egipto's vendors would starve there.

Egipto's vendors wonder what possible danger there can be, since the market is set on soil and the
river flows under its edge, apparently inside a pipeline (the huge amount of vegetation makes it impossible to see). If soil under the market were to shift, it seems to me that it would happen slowly, giving plenty of time to evacuate or take countermeasures.

A cheese vendor.
What strikes me most about this situation is the way the city seems willing to destroy a local landmark, a piece of local tradition and culture, without a second thot - even while foreign chain stores hawking junk food sprout like mushrooms across Bogotá - most likely tax breaks and subsidies meant to encourage foreign investment.

"I'm too old to move," a 56-year-old vegetable vendor, who has worked in the market since she was fourteen, as did her mother before her.

But city authorities don't seem very concerned.

The San Agustin River's overgrown ravine behind the Mercado de Egipto. Note the probably illegally homes on the ravine's edge. 

Years ago, the market was located on the corner in front of the church. The market was located due to road work. Today, perhaps it could move back. 

Thumbs up. 
A poster nearby headlines the market's original name, El Mercado de Rumichaca. 

Cheese for sale.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Sixteen-Year-Old Assassin

Jimenez and Ave. Septima, Bogotá's
open-air emerald market.
 When an emerald dealer was gunned down in broad daylinght last Thursday on one of Bogotás most iconic intersections, it probably didn't surprise many.

After all, emerald industry observers had feared violence between rival 'emerald czars' after the death from cancer last April of Victor Carranza, who had ruled the industry for decades.

And last week's victim, Pedro Libardo Ortegón, 64, reportedly had been close to Carranza, even carrying the dead kingpin's coffin at his funeral. Reportedly very wealthy, Ortegón had in the past been linked to paramilitarism and to real estate of questionable origin had been listed under his name.

But I was struck by a different aspect of the crime - the killer was 16 years old.

Is it my imagination, or are fewer esmeralderos
hanging out on the street these days?
According to El Tiempo, the child assassin was recruited in a pool hall in the poor and violent Ciudad Bolivar by unidentified men offering 5 million pesos for the murder. They gave him 2 million pesos up front.

Why would any young man, with his life in front of him, accept such a proposal? Was he a drug addict? Spellbound by the prospect of more money than he could imagine? Was he or his family threatened?

The cowardice and unprincipledness of the men who hired the boy can't be overemphasized. Willing to commit murder, but too cowardly to do it themselves, they didn't mind risking a child's life and future to do their dirty work.

The boy found Ortegón at 3:30 in the afternoon on Jimenez street between Carreras 7 and 8, the center of the open-air emerald market, and shot him in the neck with a silencer-equipped pistol. The boy then ran east on Jimenez Ave., but was captured by other emerald dealers, who might have killed him if police hadn't interceded.

Because he's a minor, the killer will likely only serve a few years. But this crime will follow him his whole life - as it should.

And let's just hope this isn't just the first of more crimes by this boy.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Friday, July 26, 2013

Short Stories From (But Not About) Chapinero

Authors from Authors, a short story collection.
I'll start this post by discrediting my taste in literature. I do read - a lot - but with little appreciation for quality literature - or even much ability to recognize it. For example, I've tried and failed three times to make it thru 'One Hundred Years of Solitude.' The Nobel-prize-winning novel confuses me and the significance of all of those strange episodes goes right past me. And I just read 'El Ruido de las Cosas al Caer,' a recent Colombian novel which has won important literary awards in Spain and Italy. Its author, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, is probably the most admired of Colombia's youngish generation of writers. I enjoyed the book, mostly because of its descriptions of the Bogotá of the Pablo Escobar era. But parts bored me and left me wondering why they were in the story at all.

And don't even ask me about tackling literary giants like Thomas Mann...

On the other hand, I just read and loved a book of pirate adventure stories.

So, I'm no judge of literature.

The creative writing group at Authors bookstore. 
With that in mind, here's my appraisal of Authors from Authors, a slim book containing 12 short stories by a group of Colombians and foreigners participants in a creative writing workshop that meets at Authors English-language bookstore in Chapinero. I greatly respect them, as I do anybody with the guts, discipline and willpower to create fiction - which is more than I've ever done.

That said, I thot this collection could have been better. In the first place, only a few of the stories are set in Colombia. That's not relevant to the stories' quality, but Colombian content would have made them more interesting and immediate to a local audience. And, as we Colombian residents know, this country is boiling over with interesting and exciting raw material for fiction and for non-fiction).

Of the stories I read (I skipped the science fiction and fantasy), three are set in Colombia. These are interesting, but lack some basic plot elements, it seems to me.

The unsubtly titled 'False Positives', by Clara Irene Reyes, tells the story a killings by the same sort. (The False Positives was a Pres. Uribe-era scandal in which military units kidnapped and murdered thousands of young men and disguised them as guerrillas in order to receive bonuses and vacation time.) Reyes's fictional story is a heartfelt (and maybe overwrought: 'Rosalia, I have just realized what they're going to do to us. I'm scared, so scared.') account of such a killing told from the perspectives of the victim, his lover and his killer - who also happens to be one of his lover's exes. But for me the story lacked a tension to carry the reader to the not-very-subtle ending: 'As blood seeped from the wound, I understood: The government always lies.'

Routine Glances, by Juan Manuel Rodríguez, set in Bogotá, is one of the few to aim for that good, ol' fashioned excitement, including sex, violence and betrayal. In order not to spoil it, I'll say only that it involves a young man who falls for a murderess who beguiles him on a bus. So far, so good. But the trouble is that what happens next is precisely what the characters predict and the reader expects to happen. A piece of irony, a plot twist would have made this story fun rather than flat. Also, several of the story's details struck me as unrealistic, including when the police arrest the protagonist and tell him 'If you can't afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.' Do Bogotá police really say that? (Perhaps only when they arrest gringos?)

Also, I might have felt more sympathy for the protagonist if he had displayed a bit more originality, instead of issuing lines like: 'Damn, somebody is in need of a little love! I will happily be the provider.' Certainly, it can't be easy creating characters, developing a plot and wrapping up a story in eight pages. But this particular character might sill have had some interests above his waistline.

A third Colombia story 'Life from a different point of view,' by Lucia Cristina Loazana, about a woman with a physical deformity, offers the lesson 'Accept people just the way they are.' That's nice, but doesn't make for a story for me.

The only story which really drew me in and left me caring for the characters was 'Pristine,' by Peter Dale. It's apparently set in Britain and describes, with interesting psychological dynamics, the consequences of a family which stmbles    discovery of someone's sexual escapade. The style is understated, embedded with small, realistic details, and the author allowed himself to suggest things and let the reader draw conclusions. The story isn't exciting, but is natural and believable, and made me relate to the characters' moral and psychological quandries. The atmosphere of sport, suburbia, sexual yearnings and family suspicions added ealism.

I also have some general suggestions for the book. Its last few pages contain photos and a paragraph or two about each writer, mostly their interests and what lively, enthusiastic people they are. But only a few included the writer's nationality or their experience - important background it seems to me to put their work into context.

Another detail: I'm sure that lots of time and dedication went into this book. However, the 35,000 peso price for a 144-page softcover might limit the readership to housemates and close relatives. (On the other hand, while in Authors I registered for a raffle for one of the sample books the store receives but isn't allowed to sell - and I won, providing me with a good value after all.)

All that said, more power to this group for their work. It's a wonderful endeavor. And since Colombia contains so much rich material for fiction,let's hope that more writers, whether Colombians or foreigners, bring it to life.

But my views are completely subjective and I'm unqualified to judge, anyway. So, support creativity made in Colombia, buy Authors from Authors and judge for yourself.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Turning 26th into a Street Art Gallery

Bogotá is turning the stretch of Calle 26 west of Ave. Decima into the city's newest street art gallery. The avenue was widened recently to add a TransMilenio express bus lane to the airport - altho that's still waiting to be completed. During the work, they demolished building, leaving big vacant wall spaces.
Strangely, the city also left vacant lots and installed benches where nobody ever sits. But those are other stories. 

Bogotá's City Council recently declared street art to be 'public patrimony' and made it legal where the property owner gives permission. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

When is a corporate megafarm not a corporate megafarm?

When it's divided into many smaller plots - even tho they're all owned by the same big coporation.

That, at least, seems to be the message from U.S. agricultural giant Cargill corporation and Colombian sugar producer Riopaila Castilla SA.

A peasant farmer benefited by government land
redistribution plows a field. But did the land end up in
corporate hands? (Photo: El Espectador)
A 1994 law was intended to guarantee land for small campesino farmers. Many of those small farmers historically have lost their land to outlawed guerrilla and paramilitary groups - which have sometimes cooperated with corporations to steal those lands from peasants.

But the two big companies managed to amass huge spreads, anyway. In order to not violate the letter of the law, they purchased plots of land one by one from small farmers in Vichada and Meta departments and accumulated farms covering some 300 square miles. And, oddly, the companies bought the Colombian land thru other companies based in Spain and Luxembourg. Ironically, by working thru foreign-based corporations, the purchasers get the benefits of international investment promotion treaties. And, the purchases are also protected by international treaties - making them much harder to reverse.

The situation has been denounced by leftist senators including Wilson Arias of the Polo Democratico Party.
A farmer herds cattle in a photo from a Colombian
government website about land redistribution.
But did the farmer keep his land? (Photo; Incoder)

The scandal just brought down its first big name with the resignation this week of Carlos Urrutia, Colombia's ambassador in Washington. A friend of Pres. Santos, Urrutia had been a partner in the Brigard & Urrutia law firm, which helped the companies buy the land. A third big company which used the same scheme to buy lands was Grupo Aval, which also owns El Tiempo newspaper.

The law firm and companies involved insist the arrangements are legal - which they very well may be. And, according to news reports, the big agricultural companies probably won't be obliged to return the land to small farmers.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the affaire is its possible implications for the FARC-government peace negotations going on in Havana, Cuba. The FARC were born as a group of landless peasants and land redistribution has been one of their core values. If the guerrillas conclude that the government is insincere about land redistributing land, could that poison the talks?

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours