A Colombian Café

You’re walking around downtown Bogota. Sooner or later you arrive at a café. They serve either coffee or alcohol. That is – unless you would prefer to have coffee mixed with your alcohol, which is perfectly acceptable at 10:00 pm in Colombia.

A zealous Colombian waitress spots you staring through the tinted windows. “Bienvenidos, a la orden?“ She’s short – around five feet tall with heels. She sports bangs and a gaping smile. “A la orden?” she repeats – emphasizing that the cafe has drinks ready to be served. Like a broken cassette tape she repeats “A la order?” yet again, as she widens her smile.  She’s charming, no doubt about it. You let yourself be lured inside.

Your eyes adjust to the dim lighting. There are roughly 20 tables squeezed into the small café. In the back is a massive couch for relaxing, but it’s taken all night. The pathway through the restaurant is less than a foot wide; at some points you turn yourself sideways to squeeze through.

Eventually you make your way to a table. Upon seating you, the waitress from the door immediately asks for your order – expecting you to already know what you want. You ask for the menu, and she leaves in search of the only copy in the entire bar.

Sit back and you notice just how loud the music is. So loud that it can’t possibly be healthy. You try speaking to the person across from you, but all they do is cup their ears in confusion. They don’t understand a single thing you said. Pretty soon you give up on talking altogether and begin nodding your head to the rhythm.

The waitress is back with the menu. She hands you the menu and peers over your shoulders as you read. You spot the ideal drink – not too cheap nor expensive. You yell the drink’s name to the waitress, trying to be louder than the pounding music. The veins in your head throb yet you can barely hear your own voice. Miraculously, the waitress understood and nods her head.

colombian bar rose seller
Photo by Rachel Jones

At one point during the evening, a short man carrying dozens of flowers enters the bar. So many flowers  that they practically cover his face. He offers a flower to each table, expecting each man to buy one for his date. He is successful more times than not. When he comes to the couch at the back of the bar, one man stands up and buys for each of his many lady friends.  A plethora of giggling and chatter ensues. Minutes later, the short waitress shoos the flower seller out of the building.

A moment of silence as the song ends. Peace, solace, a chance to relax. You lean back in your seat, but sudden trumpet blasting takes you to the edge. The next song has begun. On the other side of the café, a couple stands up from their seats, locks arms, and slow dances around their seats. Shortly after, another couple begins dancing – then another, and another. Eventually, the entire pathway around the bar is blocked as couples serenade each other. They share intimate dances, sharing affection and kisses along the way. Your eyes bear witness to the fact that there are no limits to public displays of affection in Colombia. The aisle remains blocked for the duration of the song, business shut down. The song ends and the couples nonchalantly sit down and resume their conversations.

Soon after, your group leaves to go back to the hostel.  As much fun as it was to ‘people watch’, the music’s volume has gotten to your head.  As you leave, you notice that the people at each table are the same ones as when you arrived.  Not a single Colombian left while you were there – they arrived hours before you, and have no intention of leaving soon.

Your ears ring from the music as you fall asleep.

My Colombian Mami

Does a perfect person truly exist? One without a single imperfect thought running through their head – a perfect embodiment of kindness, gratitude, and unconditional love?

Ask me last year, and I would’ve doubted this. But after visiting Villa de Levya, I am a believer. Meet Martha de León, the owner of Hostel Colombia. Or, as I came to know her, Mami.

colombian mami

What makes Mami such a special person? How can someone change from being a stranger to being family over the course of 48 hours? For starters, the first thing you notice upon meeting Mami is her voice. The softness and gentleness in her every word cannot be overstated. The love in her voice permeates the compound – leaving no souls untouched.  

Her trademark phrase, mi amor, makes figurative baby puppies roll over in joy. It’s repeated in intervals anywhere from three to ten seconds, and despite the repetition, remains purely genuine. Rarely will Mami go a sentence without saying mi amor; occasionally will her sentence consist of only mi amor.

The first thing Mami did when we met her (besides cal me mi amor) was to plant a juicy kiss on my cheek and hand me a refreshing fruit smoothie. She’s not shy about kissing – an undeniable part of Colombian culture. Each peck has the love of a box-full of bunnies, only a little less wet. Being in a bad mood is impossible after her kiss; she simply exudes positive energy.

Mami is genuine in every respect; one example is her purposely speaking Spanish slowly so  foreigners will understand her every word. When she brought us a breakfast of toast with homemade mora (blackberry) jam, and huevos con queso, we asked about her life – trying to understand how such a perfect embodiment of benevolence was shaped throughout her life.

Mami painted a picture of herself as an ordinary Colombian. From what we were able to translate, she worked in an “old woman clothes” factory most of her adult life. Married for 30 years, she had a bad separation with her husband nearly a decade ago. “Para muchos años, yo siempre llorar, llorar, llorar,”  (For many years, I always cried, cried, and cried), she said with tears in her eyes. She came to Villa de Levya and started Hostel Solar 8 years ago – in search of rest and peace.

The instant I met Mami, I became one of her sons. The fact that I arrived from a foreign land carrying a week of belongings in a  40 lb backpack and didn’t quite understand her fluently was a non-issue; the love she shared with each and everyone of us was pure and genuine. Through her love and acts of kindness Mami not only represented herself, but also Colombians as a whole. If you can make it to Colombia or Hostel Solar, please do so. But be sure to bring two hearts, because you’ll be leaving one behind.

colombian mami group photo
Photo by Rachel Jones