From Alabama to Colombia: Blame it on the Supermoon

Travel Features Supermoon
From Alabama to Colombia: Blame it on the Supermoon

Blame it on the Supermoon.

The world went gaga. Telescopes bristled on rooftops in Tucson. Lunatics leered and laughed from drive-up windows in Jersey. Werewolves ran wild in Walla Walla.

Here in Colombia, Frank Sinatra had a cold. Bitterly, we stared at heavy cloud cover. Oh, the clouds! Cakes left out in the rain. Sour grapes, bunches and cloudy bunches. Bows and flows of angel mucus. Clouds like that.

The Supermoon was one big bust.

My family and I did get one quick exhilarating Supermoon sighting as we returned by car to Bogotá after a happy weekend in the country. A huge round rising ghost eye observed us a few seconds, unblinking, then disappeared behind the black silhouette of some unknown peak in the Andes. That was it.

Still, the Supermoon must have exerted some unusual power in back of its Wizard of Oz curtains that November night. I rarely have insomnia, but I tossed and turned. Instead of counting sheep, I catalogued night noises of Bogotá.

The whoosh of traffic on the north/south autopista, one of the city’s big freeways, becomes oceanic after midnight. Passing cars crescendo and decrescendo like surf, but you hear other highway sounds deeper than waves—heavy undercurrent noises you sort of feel in the chest and bones, the way you hear the crunch of ocean breakers not just in eardrums, but internal places. Now and again, a siren or mad motorcycle barely a hundred meters from my apartment violently disturbs the peace. But like a river, peace returns, flowing its own way, hypnotic, lulling.

I hear young men laughing. Smoking Marlboros and trying to look tough, they lounge under evergreens in the pocket park below my fourth-floor bedroom window. The kids in this part of town, though, aren’t tough. The tough boys haunt the south of the city, in Soacha, prowling the night in places where the police won’t even go. The boys outside my window put on cologne and look for girls. The boys down south put on weapons and look for meat.

For a few minutes, one of the nightly jets out of El Dorado International drowns out most other sound. I watch it fly over. I often look up at planes and imagine who is looking down at me, at my building, at my window. I love the sense of wonder in that moment. Where will that person in 16B step out of the plane? Barcelona? Fiji? San Francisco? What adventure unfolds the very next day?

A taxi blows. Reverie ends.

The surface streets of Santa Barbara Occidental can grow loud as a jungle at midnight. The growls of jaguars just happen to occasionally be Jaguars, along with migratory herds of less shiny Chevy Sparks and Renaults and, of course, the insect swarms of motorcycles. No taxi in Colombia drives a full block without a blast of its horn. For some drivers, it’s recreational. For some, it’s possibly therapeutic, a kind of primal scream. On rare occasions, once in a blue Supermoon, a taxi driver blows a horn to actually avoid some accident.

A few blocks away on a balcony, a dog goes off like a barking bomb. Some other enraged dog on some other balcony answers. A beagle and a cockapoo quickly go out of their minds arguing from respective terraces. Designer beasts gather their teams: mastiffs and Shar Peis and pits over here in Apartamento El Molino, lapdogs and Weimaraners and bulldogs there in Tordesillas. The barking idiots of insomnia have their party.

Blame it on the Supermoon.

Far down the street, wafting on the east wind, comes relief. I hear horns, not the kind played by taxi drivers, but the kind played by mariachi. It sounds like bullfighters stepping into a ring, red capes lifted.

Plaza México, one of the most intriguing features of my neighborhood, holds down most of an entire block four streets east of my apartment. The plaza’s mission, its architecture, its styling all evoke the famous Garibaldi Plaza in Mexico City where mariachi music became famous.

This place in Bogotá is, indeed, mariachi central, with four or five different groups unloading from vans every night with instruments set to play for, you guessed it, Mexicans living in Bogotá and lonely for home. These Mex-pats buy bottles of tequila or rum and pour shots for other homesick Mexican buddies and beauties packed at small tables, and everyone sings Juan Gabriel tunes loud and passionately. A dozen or so musicians dressed very much like bullfighters (only a few less sequins per square inch) strum and thump guitars, horns, violins, etc, long into the night.

The distant mariachi music makes me think of Johnny Cash’s greatest song, Ring of Fire. Cash wrote the song but felt it nagging him, not quite finished. The songwriter went to sleep and had a dream, and in the dream heard Spanish horns playing, like bullfighting music, he later said. Cash arranged mariachi horns to start his tune … and that distinctive brass intro still brings people out of their seats even now, 53 years after Ring of Fire debuted on the radio in 1963.

The wind changes. The mariachis fade. Local noises return.

The portcullis of the building grinds open, and a car cruises to rest four stories beneath my bed. The insult of a burglar alarm sounds as the driver locks up.

A garbage truck grumbles into hearing, clanging and chuffing its way down Carrera 23 like an armored prehistoric monster. The sanitation crews leap acrobatically off and on, quiet as mimes except for signal whistles, a strange street language with no words.

Ahead of the sanitation crew, the hermit crabs of Bogotá make a quieter noise. Men in the streets pull oversized wooden carts with tall cardboard sides (imagine 18th-century engravings of tumbrils, those two-wheeled vehicles packed with ruffle-shirted aristocrats on their way to the guillotine). The street scavengers scuttle from one trash deposit to the next, salvaging cardboard, barely keeping ahead of the garbage trucks.

These collectors once used horses to pull carts, but the animals suffered such neglect and mistreatment that the city outlawed their use for scavenging. Now street people do the work the horses did, muscling mountainous loads down the middle of dark calles and carreras at all hours. Under strain, gaunt, dressed in rags, the collectors look every bit as neglected and mistreated as the animals once must have.

A car rolls past, window down. The loud radio plays a song you hear everywhere in Bogotá right now, La Bicicleta, a Carlos Vives/Shakira duet. The pair sing a sort of new national anthem in this country where two Colombians who achieve great things can easily become immortal. Sixty million people are eager to hang their hat on national pride of any kind.

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but over the autopista, in the neighborhood called The Alhambra, a genie’s hand shoots fireworks into the low clouds. They go off with a muffled pop and a puff of ghostly light.

It isn’t a Supermoon. Oh no, there will never, ever, be anything in our lives again like the Supermoon. But fireworks are better than nothing on this long, sleepless night.

Image: Rex Boggs, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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