"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