The Real Gold
The occasion was a lanzamiento, or "launching" of the second edition of a book of mine that had been translated into Spanish a few years back. During the week of my visit, my sponsor, whom I'll refer to as José, arranged a dinner at which I would be able to meet a number of distinguished writers from the Latinoamerican world. These were folks who had won an international competition–drawing on Colombia, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela–and who had, as a result, come to Colombia and give a week of workshops to aspiring writers. We met, all ten of us, at a fairly elegant restaurant in downtown Bogotá, at about 8:30 p.m.
It was a delightful evening. What was most striking to me was the ambience, the energy that moved around the table. Put a collection of leading writers, academics, businessmen, artists–practically anybody, really–together in the United States, and what you frequently wind up with is a bunch of aggressive egos competing to be Number One. The conversation will be subtly boastful, filled with witty put-downs and a kind of controlled (or not-so-controlled) narcissism that is so common in the U.S. that we don't even notice it; anthropologically speaking, it's just part of the air we breathe. These Latinos, by contrast, were gracious, suave, and low-key. They joked a lot, reflected on art and literature, and obviously enjoyed each other's company. I couldn't help thinking that whereas so much ritual interaction in the U.S. seems to have a tacit agenda or subtext of promoting oneself at the expense of others, the interaction among this group was about respecting each other, making everybody feel valued. It's a cliché, of course, but sometimes you can't see the "given" of your own culture until you are confronted with the "otherness" of another one.Dinner over, we all shook hands and parted. José and I and another writer, Alberto, walked out of the building and onto the street. As Alberto walked away, I noticed he was rather overweight and walked with a slight limp. There was something very human about this; something real and vulnerable. And then, he unexpectedly turned toward me and said, quite simply, "Bienvenidos." It was casual, but nevertheless very poignant: deliberate inclusion of the outsider; recognition.
A couple of days later, having some free time on my hands, I decided to visit Bogotá's famous gold museum, the Museo de Oro. Actually, I was finding it a bit boring. Anthropological significance aside, gold just doesn't turn my crank, even when it is artistically crafted. Standing in front of one display, I looked around to discover that I was surrounded by something like fifty schoolchildren, ages twelve to sixteen, all
in uniform. Three schoolgirls moved closer to me; the most "courageous" asked me, in Spanish, if I had the time. I showed her my watch. "Tres y diez," I tell her. "Are you a visitor?" she continued (she's now eight inches away from me). I was suddenly aware that what was happening would strike an odd note in an American (U.S.) context. For one thing, Americans are not terribly interested in foreigners, as far as I can make out; only twelve percent of U.S. adults own a passport, for example. And American schoolgirls would not be likely to approach a white-haired man in his sixties unless it was part of an inside joke. I was startled by the simplicity and directness of this encounter; clearly, this young lady had every right to be taken seriously. We chatted for a while in Spanish, as two of her girlfriends listened in, intently. I told her I was a writer from the United States, here to talk about one of my books. I asked her what school they were all from (San Agustín), and what the class subject was (anthropology). Finally, we stopped talking and just smiled; I touched her lightly on the shoulder and said, "Adios."
About an hour later I was sitting at the entrance to the museum, indoors, at the far end of a low stone ledge, writing these notes, when my three new "friends," along with the rest of the horde, swept through the lobby. They all crowded onto the ledge, the three girls making a point of plunking themselves down right next to me, causing me to scramble to shove my briefcase and jacket out of the way, so as to make room for them. Two of the girls were hugging each other, which struck me as being very sweet, and–again–something one just doesn't see in the U.S. The "courageous" one looked over at my notes.
"Qué escribe?" she said, looking up at me. I couldn't very well tell her I was writing about her and her friends, so instead I asked her what other class trips they had all been on. "This one is the first," she said, "but next month we're going to the planetarium." I asked her what she thought about gold; she just shrugged. "Perhaps the stars will be more exciting," I suggested. She laughed. At this point their teacher announced that they needed to leave, and they all stood up to go. As they swarmed away, the two younger girls, who were still hugging each other, turned around andlooked back. "Bye," one of them said in English, smiling at me. "Bye," I replied. The hall emptied out; it was suddenly silent again. I sat there, thinking about the sheer "innocence," the natural friendliness, of the whole interaction–interaction of a kind that no longer seems to be part of the U.S. social landscape. How much, I thought, we have lost, without even realizing it.
So I didn't find any drugs or violence in Colombia, though I have no doubt that they are there. But I couldn't help reflecting on the possibility that there are different types of violence in this world, and that the relentless destruction of "social capital," as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls positive human interactions and relations, has to be one of the most pernicious forms, especially when it seems to permeate an entire society (sort of like odorless gas, or like something that got put into the water supply). What have we norteños paid in return for our extreme individualism, our constant competition, and our sad confusion of "goods" with "the good life"? Another sociologist, Robert Bellah, puts it this way: “Our material success,” he writes, “is our punishment, in terms of what that success has done to the natural environment, our social fabric, and our personal lives.”
I guess there's no turning back now.
©Morris Berman, 2006