In Colombia anybody working with a legal contract (as opposed to the loophole contract–which is simply designed to avoid just about everything conceivable) is automatically joined to a compensation club. These entities are in some way a socialist institution, a sort of cooperative run by a private company with which one gets discounts. Some of them own theaters, are associated with grocery chains, and they tend to own resorts in the kinds of places people go for vacations.
We have Cafam, a big one, and they have a huge resort in Melgar.
Melgar is an hour-and-a-half, to two hours from Bogotá, all down the mountain. Melgar is all the way down too: down in the torrid Madgalena valley. The resort is well managed, well kempt and generally well arranged. They handle vacationers all year round and they handle great volumes and no doubt great problems. They are good. And they must spray for bugs because you don’t encounter them in the quantities you would expect.
So they have two hotels, and hundreds of little cabins scattered (but not widely, just in large quantities) over the acreage, with pools, a zoo, amusement park, etc. It is all concentrated in one compound in which they control all the pricing with the usual prices of convenient location and near-absolute monopoly.
If you have good neighbors, then you can stay in a cabin, cook your own food, read, swim, write, wander, and be in a very hot climate with all reasonable amenities excluding TV, internet and air-conditioning. Not a bad thing.
What if you go to a cabin in Melgar and you have bad neighbors? They will turn on their stereo early and turn it off late. You can get the security guys to come after them, but only after midnight. They can party up till midnight, laughing raucously, screeching and doing whatever it is they came with a vague idea of doing.
The resort is geared to all classes, and you can pay much or little. We got our cabin for two nights for about $60. That’s a great price, but it means they get all kinds of people for those prices. Some people’s idea of a good time might be always having reggaeton blasting at them, and might not include consideration for people with slightly more delicate tastes. If they go to the pool, they will take their music there. If they are located in the cabin immediately behind you and close to the screens of your bedroom which do not have glass or any other kind of protection–not that you would be in there if the room were hermetically sealed–then there is little you can do to avoid being involved in their idea of a good time.
You can hope they’ll go to some blaring bar where people only talk to each other in shouts in a bewildering semidarkness with randomly flashing lights till 3AM, but they might not want to spend what that amenity requires. Colombians are not choosy about music, so long as it is neither intelligent or beautiful. Stupefied by drugs, alcohol, excessive fornication, sleep deprivation, heat stroke or just stupefied by not being too intelligent to begin with, some people on vacation in Melgar find they have to turn up the volume considerably. That surly modern attitude that you have a right to jackhammer at your sensibilities to drown out the lack of inner resources–the life of animals seeking physical stimulation to drown out the demands of the soul, however meager these latter–prevails in places like Melgar.
That is the big drawback. When you book a cabin in Melgar, you gamble with that unless you are the kind of party whose idea of a good time is to make a nuisance of yourself.
The town itself is a trashy little hot-weather town glorified by hard partying into an uninterrupted string of bars, restaurants, hotels and shops–at least along the main drag an on the approach to this huge resort center from which the town derives its substantial life. It is the place to get a cheap vacation. If you cross the brown river you’ll find the shacks and tumble of any other village of its kind not endowed with a lucrative nexus and endless supply of cash from the capital. If you are a foreigner you are probably wise not to venture far along that way.
Melgar has the glory of vegetation. You plant something there, it will grow rampant. They have mangos in the Magdalena valley–various varieties of the tree with the mangos in clusters ripening in the sun and dropping as chance or the weather permit. In the resort, the mangos are abundant and people go about gathering the windfalls.
There is a sullen disorder to hot weather towns, a sort of sleepy, continual decay. You don’t need much to live: not a lot of clothes certainly, not a whole lot of possessions, hardly even walls or roof as the weather is probably never below 80. With the rains, especially at night, it can cool down, but not that much. (We had good long, hard rains during the nights. Pleasant that, watching it in the lamplight, the eaves dripping, the bats winging through it gleaming, the gurgle mingling with the sounds of insects. It has been raining and all the trees are hoary with moss and lichens now, the palms exuberant.) And so life shambles onward there, in flip-flops or, when it wants to go quickly, perched on a sputtering scooter.
The bus stop is no destination, a way-station of dust and squalor: cheap eateries under rickety awnings, food ripening variously in greasy glass cases, smarmy shouting conductors, taxis, buses, heat and the fat slobbing recumbent it in the shade. Safe and sordid, is what the bus stops tend to be. Any robbing there is done by way of commercial exchange-the ancient rite of overcharging: so you haggle with all the sly hagglers in the bustle of buses coming and going. The haggling is why I think they have to affect a rush, as if they went on timetables and worried about being on time. Time, like the river, flows at the pace it wishes there, and is neither wrong or very often right.
Melgar has a good place to get coffee. It also has a restaurant called MacDougal’s which is probably not as interesting as it sounds. A fast food type place, it seems: beware of Colombian imitations of fast food; they can do it well when they do it with their own cuisine, but when they branch out they add uningeniously. We looked at the restaurants, tried one, and ended up eating in our cabin all the rest of the time. The enigma of MacDougal’s is still with me.
It is its own thing, hot weather. You take a lot of showers–there is no hot water and it is not missed. Living in the heat all the time, without going in and out of air conditioning you soon get used to the demands. You can spend the whole week wearing the same bathing suit and only changing your shirt, thus taking a vacation from laundry. The simplicity can be useful, especially if you want to concentrate on something and get it done.
Here is the thing about Colombia: it is equatorial and so the temperature mostly stays the same year round. The variation is not really at the place, it comes when you move from place to place. Bogotá, for example, is a 50-60s type of place, seldom warming up into the 70s on hot days. Medellin is a 70-80s type of place. There are places of 80-90s and hotter. You pick your altitude in the mountains, or not, and stick there. Colombians who have lived in places with seasons have complained to me about the problem of having to figure out what to wear. Americans living in places with seasons have been known to do this too, which to me speaks of the general lack of ingenuity and resourcefulness the human race is plagued by in its present conditions.
This also explains why people in Bogotá complain so much about the so-called cold. If you come from warmer weather (most of the rest of the country) you might have thought to buy a jacket for here, but the concept of dressing is layers is a bit foreign. The idea, for many, of the weather being at all on the chilly side is a bit strange. They come, it is never warm, they are not used to it, they dislike it.
There is a drawback to hot weather: a general lack of enterprise. It is no way to spend a life.