When I go back home and someone asks me how I learned Spanish, I will tell them it was on the sidelines of a football field, channelling my best Aliou Cissé, yelling ¡Sacala! ¡Muy bien chicos, muy bien!
If I’m being honest, learning Spanish has more to do with my everyday frustrations. Chicos! Ya! No mas! When my students won’t let me lead the lesson I spent hours planning or when my dogs, Tomás and Bruno, won’t let me enjoy a cigarette. In many ways, Spanish has become a language of frustration. Some days I’m tired of learning and need a break.
I was tired of explaining to the landlady that the stench coming from my bathroom sink was unbearable and that if dirty water came gushing from my shower drain one more time I would move. I wanted to tell her that but my Spanish refused. I was just tired. The conversation played in my head: “Es que, estoy frustrado.” “Que pena, Ras, voy a llamar el plomero.”
Estoy cansado. So I decided to go the park and have an empanada because if I stayed there any longer I’d be sick. Bleach on bathroom tiles. Scrunched up toilet paper in sink drain. Carajo! Que es eso! A cigarette and then I would leave. Screw this.
Sitting on the bench where the hammock used to be before we took it down for party preparations, I thought of my frustrations, among them my failed attempts at quitting smoking, when my phone vibrated.
Text: I’m sorry.
My brother. Not today, Lord.
I texted back: it’s okay—and listened to the audio recording accompanying the apology. A Japanese cover of Linkin Park’s “Numb.” I crushed the cigarette butt and wondered why he had unblocked me.
I can track Cajicá’s growth in the ten months I have been here. The coloured bricks next to the bike lane were not there when I moved from Cali, neither were there California Sunsets—are these California Sunsets?—planted next to the new benches in front of the tienda. I don’t remember what was there before the cute café opened next to the tienda. This is the café of my youthful aspirations, the sort of place I dreamed of spending uncountable hours, back bent toward fingers tapping on a keyboard, cold coffee swirling in mouth when I finally rest my head on my palm to look at the California Sunsets.
I passed by, wondering if the café would have a problem with me taking a picture, promising to come back, and kept riding towards the park, because I really wanted those empanadas.
Most parks in Cundinamarca look the same. Except for the statue at its heart, the buildings surrounding it are the same: a bank, police station, restaurants, shops selling electronics from China, and the church. Not a church but the church.
Cajicá’s church, Iglesia Inmaculada Concepción, which has a history that spans all the way back to the 1500s, is a glorious structure with a golden dome, visible almost anywhere in Cajicá, and magnificent red doors that are probably meant to welcome all weary travellers but have the opposite effect on me. I don’t know how many pictures of this building I have taken, but it’s always newly beautiful every time I visit the park. This church, this magnificent structure, one of my favourite in Colombia, also happens to be right next to the restaurant that, according to Pablo, sells the best empanadas in town.
The owner, an amiable man probably in his 60s, with the aura of a well travelled man—an assumption I make from the pictures hanging on the walls and the ridiculous number of toys hanging off the ceiling, souvenirs to mark different adventures—brought my empanadas and a cold Pony Malta. I ate the boiled quail eggs planted onto the empanadas with toothpicks first.
¿Como? The owner asks if I’m still using the ají. No, gracias. I didn’t even hear the words coming out of his mouth yet I understood what he was saying. This is how we survive, through context.
Maybe two empanadas were too much. I sent a tweet to my friend explaining the closest Kenyan thing to Pony Malta. Malta Guinness. Pony Malta is what Malta Guinness would have been if we showed it the same love Colombians show their products. For instance, if the man sitting in the next table knew what I thought of what he was eating, I would get the same lecture I have had to endure the last several months: ¡Mira este man! ¿No te gustas Chocoramo? ¿Como? ¡Chocoramo es el mejor ponque en el mundo! A bold statement for a rather bland chocolate-coated pound cake.
Next stop, cute little cafe. But first, a ride around town to make room for the empanadas that sat in me like stones. I rode my bike slowly, pushing through the memories dangling from the sky. I felt them bumping against my head, one at a time, each one demanding something, each one denying something. But none of them were able to endure the excitement that hit me when I made the turn towards the library and squeezed the brakes right at the railway crossing.
I don’t know how I didn’t hear the blaring horns, but right in front of me was the train I had been chasing since I moved here. I remember hearing the horn back in January and asking Angelica “Hay un tren en Cajicá?” and getting lost in Pablo’s passionate presentation on the history of railway transport in the Sabana de Bogotá.
Later when I did some research I found this gem:
The first class passenger cars are a little less [different from] the second class ones of the railroad of La Sabana; the second class ones more or less like the third class ones, and the third class, extremely small and uncomfortable, resembling cages for transporting prisoners […]. Train employees are not uniformed; the driver does not notify the passengers of the arrival at each station; in the first-class cars, smoking is permitted and luggage is allowed that does not fit under the seats or in the baskets; the locomotives do not announce the arrival of the train stations, but only give a short whistle within them to [inform passengers that they are about to] tighten brakes; and, what is worse, [they] do not whistle when you are going to pass through the numerous bridleways or the roads that cross the railway.Rufino Gutiérrez, 1921
I laughed when I saw the train and remembered this passage. I loved it the first time I read it and I still do. It reminded me that no matter how far you are from home we are never too far away.
I thought of the ridiculously expensive Standard Gauge Railway project back home and the conversations I had last year around the election period which would always end up in a frustrated “let’s just talk about something else.” “Trips to Mombasa will now take 4 hours!” Someone would say, “and trips to town from Rongai (an 18 kilometer trip) will still take 4 hours,” I would respond. The SGR, a promise of a better Kenya, a dream deferred. I realised how anything is an upgrade if what you have “resembles cages for transporting prisoners.”
There have been developments since the train moved through the Sabana de Bogotá those 97 years ago. What was before me was a comical red train, shorter than I thought, ferrying people who eagerly looked out the windows. Tourists, I gathered. I pulled out my phone and took a video that ended sooner than I had anticipated. At this moment I wouldn’t care if someone came to me and gave me a lecture in Spanish, I was happy.
I rode back planning my trip across the Sabana de Bogotá, a bit sad that they no longer allowed smoking in the cars, and that they now probably announce the arrival at the stations ruining the surprise. I was so amused by the find that I didn’t notice when I cycled past the cafe and only realised it after I had arrived home.
When I decided to visit the café the next day I found it was closed and took that as a sign.
Es muy dificil quedar en esta cuarto, I told the landlady, knowing that I would soon run out of patience, and places to visit. Besides, I need my Saturdays because in as much as I don’t always look forward to the family part, I would love to have a livable place to do nothing or, at the very least, pretend that I am writing, a place where I can control the language settings around me.
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