About mid-day, the crew packed up and we headed toward the mountains. We were going to get a shot of Roberto gazing down at a spectacular view of Bogotá. I was riding with Carlos in his car, when a few fat raindrops plopped down on the windshield. Moments later, a ferocious rain began to pummel the car. What had happened to our sunny day?
Carlos said the good news was that when it rained this hard it wouldn’t last more than fifteen or twenty minutes but he was wrong. It kept coming, and the sky flashed with light, and thunder rumbled over the city. Hailstones rattled off the hood of the car, littered the street and sidewalks. Pedestrians ran madly through the rain for cover as though under attack by strafing fighter planes. People and dogs huddled in doorways. The always horrible traffic became even horribler. Carlos tried to take another route to our location but it was no better. Rivers of rain gushed down the steep streets. Nervousness began to gnaw at my gut the way it had most of the day yesterday as I worried that we would run out of time.
Carlos said we would have to forget about getting the shot in the mountains, but that Roberto’s apartment had a great view of the city and we could do the shot there. He said we would meet up with the crew somewhere for lunch and hope the storm would have subsided by the time we were done.
We drove through the gray rain to a big gray building, and found the crew already eating in a vast food court. Glumly and without appetite, I ate my eggplant lasagna. Everything had been going fine till I had walked off wearing the basuquero’s bracelet. I looked at it, thought about taking if off. But it was ridiculous to think a skinny kid with some colored strings could control the weather.
We finished lunch and left the building and found hailstones melting on the sidewalks and a gray but rainless sky. We still had two locations to go to. I wanted to shoot in the park near my hotel. It was in the upscale northern part of Bogotá, and all the joggers and dog walkers and attractive women in their stylish clothes would provide a nice contrast to the grunginess and homeless people we’d filmed downtown. Then after the park, we’d finish at the apartment. But we were running behind because of the storm, and since the apartment had a couple of scenes we had to do, we decided to go straight there.
And everything went smoothly. No creepy curse of the basuquero seemed to be in evidence. We got the scenes of Iván Lopez as Roberto receiving the death threat over his phone and then hastily packing to get out of town one step ahead of his executioners, and then, as the long day drew to a close, the setting sun appeared through a scrim of clouds and shed a lovely light over the city as Roberto stood at his window taking it all in; the shot was almost certainly better than what we would have got in the mountains.
It had been a difficult two days, but we were finished! Carlos and I were elated. We had gotten everything we wanted except the stuff in the park, which would have been nice to have, but I could live without it.
I went outside. Night had fallen on Bogotá. The crew was packing up the van. I stood at the top of a driveway that sloped to the street, and called Stefani in California; I was using Carlos’s cellphone since mine was on the fritz. I had been keeping Stef abreast of the vicissitudes of the trip, and she was glad to hear we were done with the shoot and it had turned out well.
Do you remember The Omen? Gregory Peck’s son is the Anti-Christ, and seemingly random, horrible accidents happen to anybody who gets in his way. What happened next kind of reminded me of that. There was a white case about three feet tall sitting at the top of the driveway to my left. I think it belonged to the hair and make-up or the art department. It had been left there unattended. It was on wheels. Now, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it moving forward.
I turned my head. The case was rolling down the driveway, picking up speed. The van was at the bottom of the driveway, maybe twenty feet away. I took off after the case, determined to catch it before it hit the van (not that anything very terrible would have happened if it had; it’s not like it was carrying nitroglycerin or something). I caught up with the case and grabbed it with my left hand. I tried to put the brakes on so I wouldn’t slam into the van myself, but it’s tricky to run downhill, easy to lose control, and from that point on, it was like when I fell in the river; I know I did it, but I’m just not sure about the mechanics of it.
I found myself going to the left, and maybe I stumbled over that accursed case, I don’t know, but at any rate there was a sickening second of losing contact with the ground, of being airborne. I let go of Carlos’s phone and it sailed ahead of me. I landed near the back of the van half on the curb and half on the street, my left knee and elbow and my right outstretched hand bearing the brunt of the impact.
It must have looked pretty bad, judging by everyone’s reaction. Crew members crowded around me, helping me to my feet. “What you did, it was crazy!” said the hair and make-up person, whose case it may or may not have been. I brushed myself off, telling everyone I was fine.
With Helkin Rene Diaz at the hotel in Tobia.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” said Helkin wonderingly. “Your face, when you were falling…” He didn’t complete the sentence, but I assumed he meant it had born a look of wide-eyed horror. I assured him I wasn’t hurt. And then Helkin smiled. “So Tom, you fell again. That means someday you will own this apartment building.”
Someone handed me Carlos’s phone, and then I remembered I still had my wife on the line. “What the hell happened?” she wanted to know, and I told her but insisted I was fine. But I wasn’t quite being honest with everyone. When I fell in the river nothing was hurt except my dignity, but the spill I took in Bogotá was quite painful. My left arm and leg were abraided and bruised, and my right wrist was throbbing with pain.
I went to a Lebanese restaurant for dinner with Carlos and Mariela and Helkin. We were all happy and ate hummus and baba ghanoush and drank celebratory wine. Helkin was excited about a documentary he had recently shot called A River Below. It was about the imperiled (by us, of course) pink dolphins of the Amazon, and it had been a big success at film festivals. It was getting some Oscar buzz, and Helkin said that if it got an Academy nomination he was thinking about moving to L.A. and giving American movies a go. Helkin in Hollywood, that’s a documentary that I’d like to see.
We left the restaurant and walked toward my hotel, which was just a few blocks away. It was Friday night and Bogotá was jumping. Hundreds of young people were hanging out in parking lots listening to loud music and openly drinking, which is legal in Colombia. Suddenly Helkin grabbed my arm. Just ahead of me in the sidewalk was a dark circular hole missing its manhole cover. Helkin steered me around it, saying that if I stayed much longer I would wind up owning most of the country.
My wrist had continued hurting during dinner, and when I got up to my hotel room I took a good look at it. It was beginning to swell a little. The swelling was happening directly underneath the blue and red and gold strings of the bracelet the basuqero had put there. And then I remembered how weird it was when the white case began to move. Almost like an invisible hand had pushed it. Maybe the basuquero had cursed me after all! I fumbled at the bracelet, trying to undo the knots, then ripped it off my wrist and threw it in a trash basket. I hoped my wrist wasn’t broken. I was just lucky the basuquero had tied a bracelet around my wrist and not a necklace around my neck.
So I returned the next day to the cozy confines of Culver City, to my wife and dog and cats, and the squirrels playing in the dappled light in the tree outside the window. Carlos is in Bogotá, editing the trailer, and he says it’s looking good. He says we finished shooting just in time because it’s been raining constantly and torrentially ever since I left. He also told me his cellphone had quit working a couple of days after it and I crashed to the street, so I’ve had to add $700 to the production budget to replace it.
And I’ve seen Helkin’s movie, which conveniently opened at a theater in Beverly Hills just a week after I got back. I thought it was beautiful, disturbing, morally complex, and photographed wonderfully.
My wrist is sprained, not broken. I’m wearing a black brace on it, and it’s gradually getting better. Do I think I hurt it because I was cursed by a basuquero? No. Of course not. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the basuquero was involved somehow. I believe we live in a universe of meaning, we are usually not aware of it for the same reason a fish isn’t aware it lives in a world of water, water or meaning is all there is. I believe there was meaning in the chain of events that began when I had a brief encounter with a lost young man named Luis, and then literally turned my back on him and walked away. That day, it was meant for me to learn something. Be humble. Listen. Be curious. Be kind. That’s what the basuquero and his bracelet taught me.
"Roberto," Ivan Lopez, in Bolivar Square in Bogota.
The white crew van picked me up in front of the hotel and we drove downtown, mostly beating the monstrous traffic. The sun rose above the mountains and filled the city with beautiful light. It promised to be, at least compared to the day before, an easy day. Iván Lopez would be the only actor involved. We’d shoot him in various settings around the city and then finish the day with a couple of scenes at Roberto’s apartment. The Bogotá traffic was always a factor but there was enough time built into the schedule that it shouldn’t be a problem. Today, unlike yesterday, would not be fraught with mud and rain and danger, with fears of falling and of falling behind, with gorges and rocks and wild, rushing water. It ought, in short, to be a breeze.
We hadn’t been working long when I made an interesting discovery. Iván was sitting on the steps in front of a church checking his phone as people incessantly do these days while Carlos and Helkin set up a shot. There was a high fence with metal bars in front of the church with a locked gate. A couple of dozen uniformed schoolgirls came out of the church. I noticed one of the girls looking at Iván. She came closer then let out a scream and shouted his name and then all the other girls screamed too and rushed the fence. They stuck their skinny arms through the bars, they looked like desperate prisoners, they were all holding phones hoping they could get a selfie with Iván. They were thrilled when Iván good-naturedly obliged them. Soon an elderly priest came out of the church, frowned at the situation, then shooed the protesting schoolgirls back in the church.
I’d known Iván was a successful actor, but I had no idea he was a celebrity in Colombia, some kind of freaking teen idol for god’s sake. I asked him how it felt to be famoso. He laughed and shrugged and said some of it was good, some of it was bad. But Carlos told me that he loved it, that all actors love it.
We went to Bolívar Square, a plaza surrounded by government buildings and a great cathedral. Iván was filmed walking across the plaza as pigeons arose en masse and swirled perfectly around him. Carlos declared himself a great director of pigeons.
I sat down on some steps in front of the bronze statue of Simón Bolívar as they set up the next shot. The plaza was beginning to fill up with people. Among them were a number of scary-looking, ghoulish figures. It was a few days before Halloween, and somebody had told me there was going to be a zombie parade later. When I saw three ragged, shambling men headed my way, I at first thought they were zombies, but then I realized they were basuqueros.
Basuco is a potent, impure, poisonous kind of cocaine. The shit of the shit, it’s called. It damages the lungs, the liver, the brain. It’s highly addictive, and the cost of a hit in pesos is equivalent to about one American quarter. In Colombia, it’s the drug of choice of the poor and the lost, the wretched and the damned, and its users are called basuqueros.
The three basuqueros sat down on the steps not far from me. I eyed them warily. It was not unknown for basuqueros to rob or even kill people in their desperation to get money to buy more basuco. But I knew it was unlikely anything was going to happen to me on a sunny morning in the middle of Bolívar Square.
They could not have stood out more from the other people on the plaza (excluding the zombies) if they had been wearing clown costumes. Their clothes were filthy and torn, their skin was dark with grime. All three had dreadlocks hanging past their shoulders, and two of them had bushy, matted beards. The beard of the third was short and wispy. He was different from the other two. They were a lot older, for one thing, and seemed hard and harsh. Not guys you would want to meet on a dark street at midnight. But the third man didn’t seem like someone to be threatened by. He was small and slight and had regular, handsome features. One could imagine a cleaned-up version of him as an earnest young graduate student, or a guy dancing at a disco with his pretty girlfriend. He was wearing a beaded necklace with long pieces of colored string dangling from it.
The three of them were laughing and talking with one another as they made themselves comfortable on the steps. Maybe it was a good morning in basuco world. I forgot about them, and watched Helkin following Iván with his camera as pigeons fluttered up. And then I saw that one of the basuqueros was approaching me. It was the young one, with the colored strings.
“Buenos días,” he said. “My name is Luis. What is your name?”
I told him. I was surprised by his slow, careful, but grammatical English. I also wondered how he knew to speak English to me in the first place. I knew I didn’t look like a native Colombian, but I could have been French or German. I guess I just had American written all over me.
“I would like to make you a bracelet,” he said, reaching for the strings hanging at his neck.
I told him no thanks, I didn’t want one.
“You do not have to pay for it. This is what I do. I make bracelets. I like to make bracelets.”
I could have said no again but it seemed awkward to do so, so I reluctantly extended my right arm. The basuquero began trying strings around my wrist. His dirty fingers were deft and fast, and soon I had my bracelet. It was made of four strings: one blue, one red, and two gold.
I saw Alex, a young bespectacled baseball-capped P.A., coming in my direction. No doubt concerned I was being hassled by the basuquero. This was a good time to go. I stood up, and looked at the bracelet. The sun was strong in the thin air of the mountains, and the red and blue and gold strings glowed in the sunlight. The basuquero—Luis—was watching me. No matter what he had said, I knew he was expecting me to give him some money. A two thousand peso note, worth less than a dollar, would have made him more than happy. But instead of reaching for my billfold, “Gracias,” I said, and walked away with Alex.
The film crew left the plaza, heading north into La Candelaria, the old colonial district. I glanced back toward the statue of the Great Liberator. The three basuqueros were still there, talking and laughing among the people and the pigeons.
We moved along La Candelaria’s hilly, cobblestoned streets, past churches and museums and centuries-old houses painted every beautiful color in the book. I looked at my bracelet. It was a pretty bracelet. I liked it. I decided to keep it on. But I was troubled by what had happened back in Bolívar Square with the bracelet’s maker.
Why hadn’t I just given him some money? It was out of character for me not to. I always give money to people on the street if they ask me for it and look like they need it, just so long as they’re not acting threatening or belligerent. And Luis was the opposite of belligerent. There was a gentleness about him that reminded me of Helkin. Maybe he was a vegetarian too. It could be argued that his tying the bracelet around my wrist after I’d already told him I didn’t want it was a subtle form of coercion but I had stuck my arm out, and one could assert that I shouldn’t have given him the money because he was just going to go off and buy basuco with it, but as someone who in an earlier part of my life had gone deep down into the dark hole of depression and drink and was lucky to get out of it alive, who was I to judge?
We walked past the Museum of Gold, as I continued to berate myself. Not only had I been ungenerous as a human being, I had failed as a writer. A writer should be open to life, should seek it out, unless all he or she wants to write about is the probably not very interesting contents of their own skull. Instead of shunning him because he was dirty, I should have taken him to a coffee shop and asked him question after question. How did an apparently well-educated and probably middle-class kid like him wind up a basuquero? Where did he sleep at night? What were his friends like? Who did he buy the basuco from? Did he ever see his family? Did he hope to return to his old life? How did he happen to start making bracelets out of colorful lengths of string?
We stopped to set up a shot. “Roberto” would walk past a store that had a mural of a shaman with an evil-looking monkey peering over his shoulder. I still couldn’t quite figure out why I had walked away from Luis. I did recall being aware that some members of the crew might have been observing us, so maybe it was because I just didn’t want to look like a gullible American being parted from his dough by a local hustler. I was standing next to Tatiana, the first A.D. Tatiana had had a British boyfriend for seven years, and she spoke perfect English with a somewhat eerily exact Liverpool accent. I showed her my bracelet, and started telling her about my encounter with the basuquero. My eyes drifted over to the mural, and then I pointed and said, “Tatiana, look!”
The shaman was wearing a many-stranded necklace of bright beads. I had just noticed that a straggly row of colored strings was hanging from the necklace. I told Tatiana that the strings the basuquero had used had been hanging from his necklace too, and then I said: “Maybe he was a shaman. Maybe he’ll put a curse on me for not paying for his bracelet.” We both laughed.
November 11: The Basuquero, Part One: The Jungle
Today: The Basuquero, Part Two: The City
November 17: The Basuquero, Part Three: The Bracelet
With Carlos Gaviria, on the Rio Negro in Colombia.
Two weeks ago I went to Colombia. I traveled into the jungle where I fell into the Río Negro, then returned to Bogotá and fell down on the street after a basuquero had put a curse on me. Or maybe it wasn’t a curse at all. *** I’ve written a novel called Roberto to the Dark Tower Came, which will be published next May. It’s about a young left-wing South American journalist who receives a disturbing phone call: an anonymous voice tells him he has ten days to leave the country or he’ll be killed. Roberto takes the voice seriously, and makes plans to leave, but then he gets wind of a big story developing in the jungle. He decides to take a quick trip to investigate the story, and then get out of the country before his ten days are up. And so begins a journey up a river and through the jungle and into the heart of a darkness so deep Roberto wonders if he’ll ever see the light again.
I flew to Colombia to make a trailer to promote the book. Trailers for books are a relatively new thing. Most of the ones I’ve perused on the internet have been pretty basic and have left me unimpressed. I felt with my background in film I could make a kick-ass trailer with high production values that would leave all other book trailers in the dust.
I took the red-eye out of LAX. I have never been able to sleep on a plane and kept my record intact that night. I changed planes in Panama, and even though it’s in the tropics it had the coldest airport I’ve ever been to. My teeth actually began to chatter as I walked through a long, drafty terminal in search of my gate.
The next morning I was picked up at the airport in Bogotá by my old friend Carlos Gaviria. Carlos went to NYU film school with my wife Stefani, and would direct the trailer. He’s short, plump, and jovial, with a beautiful head of graying hair and a matching beautiful beard. He drove me to my hotel through the chaotic, smoking, honking traffic of Bogotá that makes L.A.’s traffic in comparison seem like something you would find in some poky small town in Nebraska. I was supposed to be able to check into my room early but inevitably it wasn’t ready, so without changing clothes or even brushing my teeth, I embarked on the first of a series of sixteen-hour days.
We were going to shoot two days, one in the city and one in the jungle. Bogotá is in the mountains, so the next morning we left the chilly city behind and went down and down a winding road into subtropical heat and drove west till we reached the little town of Tobia. It was serene and lovely. Dogs would lie in the street till a honking horn would make them reluctantly rise and walk away a few feet and plop down again.
An actor named Iván Lopez would be Roberto. Iván was handsome and charming, as our Roberto ought to be, and played an abogado, a lawyer, on a popular Colombian TV series. We picked up some shots of Iván driving around in Roberto’s aging Jeep Cherokee, had dinner at our hotel, and went to bed early. The hotel was right by the river along which we’d be shooting all day tomorrow. My window was open, and the river was narrow and fast-flowing, and I listened to its soft roaring till I fell asleep.
Someone knocked on my door at 4:30 a.m., and the river began to roar again. The cast and crew assembled outside the hotel as the dawn came on. There were about fifteen crew members, four actors from Bogotá, a half dozen guys from Tobia who’d be playing paramilitaries and guerillas, and another half dozen guys in helmets from a security company who would help us cope with the difficult terrain ahead and make sure everyone was safe when we shot the scenes on the river.
Paramilitaries had been active around Tobia before the recent signing of the peace agreement between the government and the main rebel group, the FARC, so everybody had a good laugh when a cop on a bicycle pedaled past and saw our paramilitaries with their fake assault rifles walking down the road toward him. The poor guy thought they were the real thing and hit his brake and looked like he was about to fall off his bike with a heart attack.
"Roberto," Ivan Lopez, with "Lina," Estefania Pineres, the beautiful guerilla he falls in love with.
It was the beginning of the rainy season in Colombia, and just as we were about to head out, it started to rain. It quit after about twenty minutes. The rain was good and bad for us. It made the jungle lush and green and glowing. Also, it stayed cloudy all day which was good, since you don’t want to shoot in the jungle when it’s sunny because there’s too much contrast between the sunlight and the shadows. But it made the hilly trails we had to traverse muddy and slippery and ended up costing us a lot of time.
This actually wasn’t the “real” jungle—in Colombia that lay south in the Amazon—but it definitely looked the part. We walked single file along a path that ran along the edge of a gorge at the bottom of which the river surged and roared over huge rocks and tossed up sparkling drops of water. I felt dizzy as I gazed down on it. I don’t like heights at all. It was maybe eighty or ninety feet down to the river. When the path was flat it was okay but when it went up or down it was daunting, and it was easy to imagine slipping in the mud and sliding right over the edge and screaming piteously all the way down. And then Carlos would have to call Stefani back in Culver City to let her know her unfortunate husband had met his end on the Río Negro.
I would have liked to have gone a little slower, taken my time a bit, but since I was the oldest person on the shoot I was determined it wasn’t going to be me that would hold up our intrepid little column of filmmakers. I slipped and stumbled some, but I wasn’t the only one, and after about an hour we had reached our first location. The guys in helmets helped the actors and the camera people rappel down the side of the gorge to the river. I was barely able to watch it, it made me so nervous and “Is this safe?” I asked Carlos. He assured me that it was. Although I noticed he didn’t go down there himself.
We spent the day moving from location to location down the river back toward the hotel. The only casualty we suffered was when some idiot banged his head on the bottom of a rickety old bridge, but I think the baseball cap I was wearing saved me from getting a nasty cut in my scalp.
At one point we had fallen a couple of hours behind because of the logistical problems the brief rain had caused along with the malfunctioning of our Steadicam. We’d lose the light around five-thirty or six, and whatever shots we hadn’t gotten then would forever remain ungotten because we were headed back to Bogotá that night. I kept letting Carlos know I was on the verge of freaking out and he kept telling me to not worry, that it was always like this, that we would pick up the pace as the day went on and we’d be fine and he was right. We got to our last location with just enough light left to shoot. And, as if I’d been moving toward this rendezvous all day, this is where the river and I became, let us say, intimately acquainted.
The river was wider and calmer here, and we were doing some stuff with boats. I was trying to step out of a rubber raft onto the riverbank and gee, I just don’t know what happened. The raft moved? My boot hit something slippery? Anway, bang, into the water I went. Crew members scrambled to help up the old gringo. I was drenched and muddy from the waist down, and each hand was covered with mud. As I stumbled up the bank, Helkin René Díaz, our gentle elfin vegetarian D.P., was beaming at me approvingly.
“You are a warrior!” he said.
Helkin told me it was believed in Colombia that if you visited a place and fell down, that meant you were going to buy it. I said it was beautiful here and I’d like to buy it.
Our last shot was Roberto and his photographer friend Daniel splashing frantically across the river with the paramilitaries in hot pursuit, and then the river did a slow fade-out in the dusk and we went back to the hotel. I pulled off my boots and stripped off my muddy clothes. The hotel had no hot water, so I skipped a shower and put on clean clothes and sneakers then hit the road with Carlos and his wife Mariela. Carlos’s car wound up and up till we were high in the mountains again and back in Bogotá.
They dropped me off at my hotel, where I discovered I’d left my boots, which I was quite fond of, back in the hotel in Tobia (along with falling down, losing things was a central theme of my time in Colombia—my boots, my reading glasses, my house keys, my denim jacket, twice). It was very late. I took a shower and crashed and then at 4:30 opened my eyes to darkness and a wake-up call from the front desk.
Today: The Basuquero, Part One: The Jungle
November 14: The Basuquero, Part Two: The City
November 17: The Basuquero, Part Three: The Bracelet