ooner or later, every writer will encounter on her path a majestic mountain — the blank page; that uncomfortable empty space, which stands between the writer and her masterpiece. Just as in life, one climbs the mountain of writing one word at a time.
“Buenos dias, Señor Arturo. Have you slept well?” asks Catarina, the delightful lady who cooks breakfast for the travelers at the Hotel CityFlats, in the Zona Rosa of Bogotá. She wears a white apron, cleaned and ironed every morning.
It is not my first time in Colombia and I have seen this happening in all cities I have visited — Colombia is a country where the fiberglass that protects you from other people gets thinner and thinner until nothing is left but skin-to-skin contact.
“He dormido muy bien!” I answer, perhaps with more enthusiasm than I have to spare. On the other side of the world, 10.000 kilometers away from home, I feel lonely and not just because I am the only one in the room. A cheesy Italian song tries to comfort me, but Catarina does a far better job with the omelet that she has just prepared. “Yesterday,” I add to impress her, “I went up to Monserrate.”
“El Cerro de Monserrate! And how did you get up there?” she asks, rubbing her hands on the back of her white apron.
One step at a time.
Colombian Street Food:
“Turn back, you do not have to do this,” says a voice inside me after only twenty minutes of walking. My breath is inexplicably short and the difficulty of the trail catches me off-guard.
Earlier in the morning, the taxi left me at the stairs that lead to the top of Monserrate, the mountain that dominates Bogotá. On a large two-lane road, other taxis were racing with speed, only lazily observed by two police cars; in front of the teleferico, the cable car station, a constellation of food stalls frying arepas, cooking papas, and serving delicious jugos kept my excitement high.
From there, Monserrate appeared in all its majestic beauty with its 3.152 meters above the sea level. It is an ancient sacred site that the pre-Colombian civilization of the Muisca originally named Quijicha Caca, grandmother’s foot. On the summit, the Muisca built temples to worship the solar god Sué at every solstice of June, when the sun rises exactly from behind the mountain. In more recent times, Monserrate became a destination for christian pilgrims, the Cofradia de la Vera Cruz, who started the construction of a sanctuary in the 1620’s.
“It is the mountain of the Gods,” told me the taxi driver, hoping to trade a dramatic ending for a tip.
A crowd of tourists queuing at the teleferico convinced me to walk up just like the locals have done for centuries. After all, my copy of Lonely Planet Colombia assured me that it would only take about 60 minutes. But you know, sometimes what you learn in books is wrong and life will come and teach you a lesson.
That day I have learned that walking up the hiking trail that leads to the top of Monserrate is not easy.
Among hundreds of Bogotanos, large families, and barefoot pilgrims, I notice an old woman, her body curved under the weight of the years. The white hair, tied in a braid, rhythmically rubs against her relentless legs.
She walks up. Slowly. But never stops.
“If she can do it, I can do it.”
The scariest moment is always just before you start
While my past self is struggling with keeping up with the Bogotanos, the now-writing self is wondering: What was the point?
I am lucky enough to have a daily job that pays my bills and feeds my wanderlust. But even the coolest job or life style create a daily routine. In fact, most of our life is made up of routines. This is not necessarily bad — it really depends on which one you choose:
wake up in the morning, go to work, answer your emails, argue with your colleagues, earn money, spend it, watch TV, go out it is Saturday night, watch more TV, get laid.
wake up in the morning, find a little time for yourself, go to work, engage with the most complicated task first, chat with your colleagues, spend money to expand your experiences, nurture yourself, nurture your relationships, pursue a higher goal.
wake up in the afternoon, sign some autographs, shag somebody, promote your new album, shag some more, give interviews, shag, shag, sing, shag, shag, shag.
Next day: You wake up and you are 75. It is time to die.
It takes a son of a bitch to change a habit
Whatever life you live, it will create good and bad daily routines — both protected by concentric safety walls, which will prevent you from experiencing the scary totality of the Unknown.
Traveling is for me one way to disrupt the walls of the bad routines. Writing is another.
But you must be careful. Traveling, writing or whatever you choose to weaken those bricks may convince you that you are a special human being. Which is both the truth and an illusion.
You are indeed special, unique; because it is true: There is nobody in the universe like you. But if you are special, then I am special, everybody is special. And nobody is.
So: why do I want to climb 1.500 steps up to the top of a Colombian mountain? Why do I want to write a novel of 90.000 words?
Because it is outside those concentric walls that life happens.
Halfway up, pilgrims and tourists gather around a flat area with food and souvenir stalls — an ideal place to rest my exhausted legs and to catch some breath. Through the trees shrouded in fog, I believe I can spot the Barrio Candelaria, the historical and cultural heart of Bogotá — one of my favorite places in the entire country.
At one of the stalls, a young man and his mother are selling roscones, typical Colombian doughnuts, and all sort of fruity jugos.
“Not so many pilgrims come here like before,” says the young man, while he offers a little boy some roscones.
His mother looks at me for a split second, then answers: “Of course… Girls are wearing less and less and men are getting dirty ideas all the time. I am happy, son, that you are different.”
I chuckle unnoticed.
Following the colors and scents of such a diversity of Colombian street food, I approach another stall, where an old man is buying a jugo de naranja to accompany his arepa de queso. He knows that I am a tourist; what he does not know is that I can speak Spanish fluently. I surprise him a little when I ask how high this area is.
“We are now at 2800 meters,” he answers, making his arepa de queso disappear in two bites.
Altitude! Of course!
I totally overlooked this small crucial detail: At these heights, the air contains much less oxygen and the body needs time to re-learn how to breathe efficiently.
Her body is used to this — Her body knows how to breathe at this altitude.
I extend my sight as far as I can and recognize that old woman in the distance. She moves on the stairs without any effort as she were a ghost — step after step, a sweet dance of the feet.
When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘one word at a time’
As a boy, I would spend entire summers reading Stephen King’s books and I still believe that some of them are modern masterpieces. One of these is certainly The Stand. In the preface of my copy (the uncut, expanded version), Stephen King rewrites a brutally shortened version of the famous tale Hansel and Gretel. He does this to demonstrate a point: In a good story, the whole is always greater than the parts.
That preface is brilliant. And that is why years after I took Stephen King’s On Writing with me to Colombia.
I did not realize it then, perhaps because I was so much struggling with breathing, but now, sitting in the comfort of my house in Berlin, it all makes sense.
The blank page, the enthusiasm of the first sentences, the difficulty of keeping on, the mind getting accustomed to the altitude of the page, gaining strength version after version, until the one day comes when, unexpectedly, the top of the mountain is only a few pages away. The novel is not finished yet, but now, the view is extraordinary and, from there, it is all downhill.
At the time of my trip to Colombia, I was in the middle of a writing struggle. In several journal entries, I would describe writing as a feeble candle light, a breath fading away, an old woman walking up to the top of Monserrate.
When I came back from Colombia, I promised myself that I will seek a final solution. To do that, I built a new routine based on my mind and body natural cycles: wake up early, have a shower, have some coffee, write two hours before going to work.
I would write every day just like that old woman in Monserrate taught me: slowly but inexorably.
“It is really true,” I think when I reach the top of Monserrate: Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.
Perhaps disappointing on the outside, the white sanctuary that can be seen almost from every corner of Bogotá hides a magnificent secret: the shrine dedicated to El Señor Caido — the Fallen Lord.
Outside, tourists and pilgrims alike rush to the open-door souvenir market, the street food stalls, and the two restaurants, Casa San Isidro and Santa Clara. But personally, I find way more fascinating what is below the mountain.
Through the fog and pollution of the sky, the view from Monserrate extends from the Río Bogotá to La Candelaria, with skyscrapers only partially fragmenting the scene. The streets look like silicon circuits on a computer chip where eight million of Bogotanos run their daily routines — all is happening now, before my eyes, but the technical details of those existences vanish and a big picture emerges. Bogotá is a city that radiates energy, inhabited by fierce and amiable people, who still touch, talk, live.
Looking back at the sanctuary, I spot a familiar figure: It is the old woman who, like the writer’s fleeting muse, inspired me to keep on walking. She sits there, doing nothing but breathing.
I smile. In the end, I caught up with her.
All photos were taken during my trip to Colombia. For more check on
All quotes are by Stephen King
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