Sunday, 14 February 2016


For those in the know: Popyàn, (a colonial town in central Colombia).

One is standing, looking down on one's heaving mass of plebeians, one's soldiers ranked before one. One of those stable-lackey chappies is leading one's parade horse. Maybe today one will go and mingle with one's subjects. One notes that those verminous pigeons are back from the Square, back from shitting on Gran-mamma. Perhaps one could get Philip to shoot a few. One really must remember to have that costermonger who insists on selling those tuppenny-bags of seed, removed. He could go up on that fourth plinth; permanently. Oh, look there's two of those 'ethnic types', wonder which of one's dominions they've come to visit from? "What do you mean, they live here?" One cannot but help note that the priest next door is getting insistent, even impatient: that's the second time he's been chapping at his bell this morning. He's calling his faithful flock in for mass. What a happy-clappy bunch of parishioners he serves, a proper sing-along - and he gets an ovation at the finish.

I'm temped to try a regal wave, if I could regally wave. But would anyone wave back?

A Catholic basilica right next door to a Protestant monarchical palace? I must be daydreaming. I must be having a 'Buck House' moment.

Recommendations can be invaluable. There's simply no way that we would have ended up in this room if it wasn't for those words of mouth. The entrance wrought-iron gate is a mere handlebar width, one that's set into an anonymous white wall, that's protecting the usual flight of vertigo stairs. At the top of which is an inspection grille in an intimidating door, one that's mollified by a pasted up announcement.

It's a scenario that we generally give a wide body swerve to, one akin to the conundrum posed by Aesop, a tale of river crossings with foxes, geese and bags of grain. Only ours involves panniers, bicycles and a busy, fully pedestrianised Plaza Principal.

Arriving late morning and the Forager gets to pick the best room in the place. (A trick that she's starting to finesse). A room from the French Republican era, built from imported German materials, in a house built for a merchant. Reasons given as to why it has survived two earthquakes, shudders that have rendered the neighbour's basilica once to destruction and once to extensive restoration. Classical high ceilings, tall spit doors and two vast windows, all combining to create that most unusual of Latino architectural features - daylight. One looks out over the plaza with its monumental podocarp pines and those heaving masses, the other onto the flock exiting mass and the huddled guardsmen in full battle dress and orange reflective puttees, all interrogating their cell 'phones.

Make your way through the hostel's inner atrium of floor cushions and verdant plants, to the kitchen, where there's two stained-glass windows that, were they clear, would afford an aerial view of a different ecclesiastical altarpiece: Christ standing on a World globe. Then look upwards, through the sky-light at the Basilica's dome, floodlit in purple. It's an intriguing puzzle to untangle the various construction timelines. All that light gives the clue to the original purpose for our bedroom. It once was the 'solar' to the 'salon' that has now been converted into a multi bunk dormitory.

I've got those windows wide open to try to catch what little breeze is moving, I'm reading, not overly aware of the changing weather outside. Thunder has been rumbling around the surrounding hills for many hours, and frankly I'd given up on any resolution coming from that direction. What did alert me was the most subtle of audio alteration. The cooing of pigeons increases in proportion to the diminution in the low burble of the plaza humanity. The birds have forsaken the square, fluttered up to roost on the religious ledges; the general populace has headed for the shelter of the overhung eaves. Great fat raindrops start to pock mark the ground. The daily, permanent bank queue shuffles sideways, away from the now-deceased shadows and in under the porticoes. The photographer and his llama do likewise.

As the rain turns to a downpour, the shoeshines and the penny-sweet-sellers, who've stayed dry under those pine spires, retreat, if only because there's no custom left to serve. The itinerant vendor who's been selling rosary beads and bicycle pumps seamlessly swops out his wares and is now concentrating on umbrellas. His stock slowly depleting with each subsequent rotation below my viewing platform. The cell phone lady in her day-glo tabard and her five mobiles chained about her person, stays perched on her plastic stool, opens a giant paralluvia and carries on trading, selling 'phone calls at 3 cents a minute. An iridescent island in the premature dusk. No buyers; she waits, she's patient. As she and as everybody else knows, the tempest will soon abate.

From downpour to drizzle, to instant dry pavement. Humidity climbs, night's postponed. The bank queue reverts out into the open, the llama and his photographer return to their favoured stance. The seed-seller re-builds his cross-hatched stooks of bagged corn; there for the grand-mother to purchase, the mother to scatter so the toddler can chase the returned fat pigeons. A scenario that I've witnessed so often, that I wonder if it's prescripted in the child rearing manuals under 'gym-free exercise'.

The low murmured hum returns to the plaza. I return to my book, royal aspirations forgotten.