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The home of a nightingale

Monday, June 30, 2014


The word ‘sumercé’ (literally, ‘your grace’), although in disuse, is nevertheless a deep-rooted part of Bogota’s ancient culture.

This respectful –and rather obsequious– way of addressing someone is derived from the expression ‘Vuestra Merced’ that the Spanish ‘encomenderos’ –colonists granted land and indian labourers by royal decree– used when exalting Madrid royalty during the colonial era. “The expression took root in the central provinces of Cundinamarca and Boyaca”, I had been told a few days earlier by Andrés Ospina, a writer specialising in the history of Bogota and author of Bogotálogo (2010), a collection of words and sayings typical of Colombia’s capital, such as ‘chino’ (child), ‘chirriado’ (elegant), ‘juemíchica’ (expression of surprise) and ‘chusco’ (handsome). “I think the word’s beautiful”, he maintained. I agreed. But never more than now, when I hear Andrea Echeverri use the expression in the pottery studio at her home
in Cajicá, one of the 22 small towns on the grasslands around Bogota, an immense plateau resting on a shoulder of Colombia’s eastern ‘cordillera’ that was inhabited originally by the Muisca indians who faced up to Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada in 1538.

As a result of the city’s crazy growth in the 20th century, the high plain surrounded by the Andes Mountains has become increasingly more important for Bogota, from the ecological, agricultural and touristic viewpoints. But above all, modern, cosmopolitan Bogota looks to its surrounding countryside like someone who studies photos from his childhood in order to recall his identity: the grasslands act as an anchor to the colonial past, with their stately mansions set amidst agricultural activity.

Andrea, who has filled huge concert venues the world over, walks between tables spattered with clay, plaster and ceramic glazes. She lifts up a colourful vase shaped like a female head, the enormous mouth forming its opening.

“Look at this”, she says. “It’s like the chant: sometimes ‘sumercé’ is sweet, sometimes angry”. The cold, earthy smell of the raw clay reveals the authenticity of the place. Andrea, tall and slim, is surrounded by pottery objects she has made: cups, female busts, figures with kitsch features she has moulded, painted and then fired herself at 2,192°F. And outside, in the moist greenness of the grassland vegetation, where water abounds on grounds that were once wetlands, all that can be heard is the rippling of a stream and the wind rustling in the leaves of willows, alders and eucalyptus trees.

Andrea is not just an icon of Latin American counter-culture rock because of the group Aterciopelados, which gave her voice –a deep, mature voice like that of an old singer of ‘boleros’, sometimes harsh but always attractive– an international audience. In some way, Andrea also represents the most urban form of Bogota: much of her work had its origin in the traditional Teusaquillo district and in the streets of the colonial Candelaria neighbourhood, right in the heart of the city. The band, in fact, started out with the name Delia y los Aminoácidos, in a long-gone bar on the corner of 10th Street and 3rd Avenue called Barbaries which the singer describes on her website as a “wild, seedy nightspot”. What was it, therefore, that made her go and live in the countryside?

“We moved here when my daughter was born. When you’re a parent for the first time, you sort of become vegetarian and think that the child has to live in the country”, explains the woman who composed Bolero falaz, the song adolescents attempted to play in 1995 in inharmonious apartment bands. “And look! Milagros is 11 already”.

The idea of moving permanently to one of the charming small towns in the countryside appeals to many Bogotanos. It takes their fancy when they head out of the city on the North Highway at weekends to eat cassava bread in Chia, strawberries and cream in Sopo or cheese in Ubaté, products of the deep-rooted dairy industry in the area. Or when they visit the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira, built in the entrails of the earth. Or, perhaps, when they take the road to La Calera, which winds like a concrete snake up the eastern hills along the edge of the valley and gives them a panoramic view of the whole capital. Or, of course, when they go on an ecological hike around Guatavita Lake, the indigenous sanctuary which gave rise to the El Dorado legend.

Many people think they would love to give their children a life like this, surrounded by fresh air and greenery. But for Andrea, her children’s quality of life is just one of the good things about where she lives, since her creative process has also been nurtured by three fundamental conditions: sufficient space to have not only a house, but also a pottery studio and an area where she can practice music –where she is composing new work in honour of the boleros her mother used to sing to her–; anonymity, so she can go on peaceful bicycle rides, and finally, ritual moments to nourish the spirit. “I love lighting the fire. It gets cold here”, she says. She’s right: her colourful, traditional coat is woven from coarse cotton and wool. It’s welcoming, an efficient and natural adaptation to the surroundings. “When you sit down, ‘sumercé’, and look at the little flame while you get warm...”. Andrea makes a movement with her hands as if it was a bonfire she had in front of her. “It’s like meditating”.

La Calera: The panorama of the city from the viewpoints along the road, and the famous snacks at El Tambor and La Mazorca.
Sopo: Dairy products at Cabaña de Alpina and the Argentinean restaurant ‘Siga la Vaca’.
Guatavita: The old lake for hikes.
Chia: Cassava bread at La Magola restaurant, and the famous menu at Andrés Carne de Res.
Cajica: Homemade beer at Edelweiss restaurant.
Zipaquira: The Salt Cathedral.
Nearby is Panaca Sabana, a theme park devoted to life in the Colombian countryside.

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