It was nearing the end of my second week in Bogotá, and I found myself in a café, writing and sipping on a Colombian hot chocolate, complete with chunks of cinnamon bark marinating in the simmering liquid. My first bouts of loneliness were starting to sink in, and I was eager to stop feeling sorry for myself.
The sun had begun to set on the Candelaria district of Bogotá and a faint strumming hummed from outside the café windows. I peered out and a tiny band was forming. A guitar was present as always and low and behold a clarinet appeared. Clarinets are reserved for only the most extreme of pop-up bands. My interest piqued and I descended into the street. By this time a real crowd had formed. The band now included a tambourine, drums, the guitarist (who was also the lead singer), and the clarinet. I sat down on the curb with the crowd and watched the sway in their bodies as they closed their eyes and sang the words of old Colombian classics like “En Barranquilla Me Quedo” from Joe Arroyo. The guitarist lifted his head to the sky as if singing to Joe himself, and his cascading curls covered his shoulders. The clarinet player bopped along with the beat and rhythm of the song, and the drummer’s concentration exuded from his pounding hands. The tambourine player shook and tapped his instrument around as he sang to the women in the crowd. On the outskirts of the crowd, people murmured the words with light smiles and passed beers amongst their friends. A new law had just been passed that prohibited drinking in the street. The cops were trying to crack down on it, but a few alcohol-laden paper bags still made their way along the calle.
I leaned over to the guy next to me and asked him about the band. Was this a normal occurrence? Just a typical Friday night? He told me about the old Colombian songs the band was playing. There this feeling you get when you know an old song. It’s embedded in the fabric of your past, played at parties since your youth, family gatherings, referenced in conversation and pop culture, the words linger on the tip of your tongue and the melody flows effortlessly in your hums, yet when asked you can never remember the name.
After a few more songs, we walked to a bar nearby to meet his friend. They conversed about love lives and the drama-filled situation with a roommate who seemed to have an ambiguous role in the friend’s life. I caught bits and pieces of their rapid fire conversation, but it truly illuminated my lack of listening skills in Spanish. We walked to another bar/pizza joint where we kicked back on some reggae tunes and another friend who worked at the restaurant next door popped over. My friend, Luis, was constantly running over to change the music as the Youtube playlist kept drifting to pop. When he came back he commented on how cute the waiter was, and the friend who had most recently appeared shook his head. You don’t want those problems, he said. Apparently, the waiter was known as a bit of a macho man and wasn’t fond of gay behavior and sexuality. He’d recently verbally and physically abused a suspected gay man a few weeks ago. The friend with the ambigous roommate, Aaron, gave an unsurprised yet disappointed look. Some neighborhoods just aren’t so friendly to gay people here, he said. Going off some of the stereotypes of machismo culture in Latin America and Colombia, I also wasn’t very surprised but I figured Bogotá, being a big city might have been different. I would later go on to find out that different neighborhoods in Bogota are more welcoming, for instance, Chapinero in the north of the city seems to be a more inclusive environment for people of all sexualities.
We agreed to go out that night and after a quick change at my hostel we were off. They were taking me to a gay bar! Candelaria, the area I was staying, overall isn’t the best place to walk around at night. I was feeling a little cautious as we walked further and further away from the bubbling nightlife street. Not to mention….we’d already seen some shady stuff. I was already planning my getaway and trying to memorize the path we had come. But finally, we had arrived. In a secluded street with a nondescript entrance, we entered what would be my first gay bar.
You could tell this was a regular spot for some people – mostly men, although there was a pair of ladies in the back. A few men looked my way when I entered. I felt a bit off entering their vibe, so I just sat back and watched. I assumed most of the men wouldn’t ask me to dance, so I just enjoyed exploring this venue and glad it hadn’t been as sketchy as it looked from the outside. A few men sat at the bar with Aguila, the national beer, in hand, every so often looking over their shoulder to see who entered or who was taking up the dance floor.The same open PDA culture existed here, and you could see the gleam in these men’s eyes as they stole kisses from their SOs at the club and tugged at their backpockets. The men danced salsa with each other, the backstepping shuffle of caleña salsa popular in Colombia. It reminded me of dimly lit dance floors in Cambridge where men led and followed in social dance without hesitation. Here, they held each other closely as they spun around. And when choko music came on, forget it. Their feet flittered across the floor and they dropped with the down beat, hips switching like rubbing a stick between your hand, and they were truly alight. The energy exuding was palpable from every corner. The dance floor was packed and the corners were rife with conversation and playful banter.
And then walked in this man with cheekbones to the ceiling and melanin on noir. He wore tight dark-colored jeans and a button up top that stretched as he walked proudly with his chest forward, shoulders back. He saw me sitting in the corner and asked me to dance. Shyly, I accepted and we took the floor. There’s something about when you let the music hit you. As I had sat in my chair and envied the fast feet and the bachata turns, the music was merely in the background. I heard it and sensed it in the way it traveled down to my feet. But it never really came alive until I took his hand and touched the dance floor.
A bachata song came on and the muscle memory tapped in. My hips switched with all the flair sensual bachata had to give and I might have let a body roll or two slip out. The men turned their heads and there was always another outstretched hand once the song had ended. Even in a room of gay and bisexual men, I couldn’t help but let my flirty side show, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t catch a couple prolonged stares as my body embraced the music.
The man with the high cheekbones led me to the other half of the room with his friends another pair of Afro-Colombians. I love to see the diaspora thriving and that they were. They gave me a quick nod before they descended into their own world as they clasped hands and danced bachata together. Behind us, a screen played videos to the music we were listening. It was a bit ironic to see such strong heterosexual imagery in the midst of this gay bar. But the life of the marginalized does not often include representation.
The video ended and a new song came on. The type of music had changed and the crowd shuffled as some new folks stood and others excused themselves from the dance floor. This was cumbia. The men held their imaginary skirts and turned about themselves. I stared at my feet and tried to copy the suave movements as they effortlessly twisted about. “Si! Eso es!” They cheered. I held my own imaginary skirt and felt the music shuffle my feet, happy to have been accepted into their world, if only for this moment.
Tomorrow, they would go back to their daily lives, studying, working, taking care of their family. I can only hope they carried the energy of those nights with them. Like many other societies or groups that exist outside of the mainstream, it takes a little longer to find, a little more searching, and a little faith to look past an unfamiliar exterior. But oh when you arrive. Within this bar, sequestered away, the queer folk of La Candelaria embraced freedom and a passion for life. It was fervent, it was theirs, and it would not be contained.