Bogota quarantine: Nobody is hiring mariachis anymore

In quarantine here in Bogotá, the days flow into more days.

But sometimes the routine of sameness is broken up. At a certain moment, live amplified mariachis playing in front of my building can break into song without warning.

Mariachis, and Bogotá has many, have a long tradition here. It used to be that mariachis congregated in one area of the city, along Avenida Caracas in the 50’s blocks. Anybody celebrating an aniversary, a birthday or a surprise event could drive up and hire a group of mariachi musicians right off the street, and the mariachis would follow the hirer to his of her home where they would suddenly burst into song outside the window of the surprised. This usually happened at night to increase the surprise.

Quarantine has changed all that. Nobody is driving to Avenida Caracas to hire mariachis anymore. The business model has changed.

Now the mariachis are wandering the streets of Bogotá playing in front of random buildings, looking for customers in broad daylight, hoping aginst hope that someone will hire them and pay them for their music.

They are not alone.

Other musicians of all variety have begun doing the same. At any time of the day, there can be a sudden eruption of music on the streets outside. Today there was a very powerful drumming ensemble. I had never heard this sound nor this vibration before and was unsure at first about what was going on. My cats were equally unsure and raced to the windows. These were amplified drummers looking to impress, and they did, and again looking to drum up business, and again in need of money.

Colombia is going through one of the longest quarantines in the world. 2 other Latin American countries, Peru and Argentina, are in the same boat. In Bogotá, we started our quarantine early, mid-March, and we are still going strong. Colombia’s President Duque said this week that 57% of Colombians, out of a population of 50 million, are still living their lives in self-isolation. And our quarantine countrywide, just now, has been extended till the end of August. Occupancy in ICU’s in Bogotá is hovering at about 90%, and our peak is not expected for some more weeks.

Vehicular traffic on the street outside my building is minimal; there are at times delivery trucks, taxis and some cars. Quarantine has been a boon for food and supermarket delivery services, so there are often motorcycle deliverers, bicycle deliverers and even pedestrian deliverers coming and going. I see people walk their dogs, and some people, though not many, going out with shopping bags and coming back from the supermarket with their shopping bags full.

Sometimes our quarantine has been strict, only one person per household allowed out at a time for essentials such as groceries, banking or pharmacy purchases. And sometimes our quarantine has been more relaxed though the city still maintains a control that only allows those whose national identification number ends in an even number to go out for needed services on even dates, and those whose ID’s end in an odd number to go out on odd dates.

And in this way, we go on. Days flow into more days.

Every so often, there are desperate shouts from those in dire straits walking the streets. Help us! they cry out. We need food, we need help! Men and women are wandering the city begging for help.

But we are in the middle of a pandemic with an uncertain future. Few are in a position to offer scarce money to all of those asking for help, and to those who might come tomorrow encouraged by those who got something today.

Others come by my building, shouting Eucalipto from the street. They are selling eucaliptus leaves. Colombians have a soothing belief in the power of eucaliptus to cleanse the body. I’m all in, but I haven’t gone down to the gate of my building to buy Eucalipto leaves yet.

People have been telling me for months that I have to go out.

 You need to leave your apartment, many have said. Go and walk about your neighborhood. Feel the sun on your skin!

 My psychologist has advised the same.

 For months, I felt no pressing need to heed their advice. But I went out last week for the first time in four and a half months. I put on my N95 mask, my doorman opened the gate of my building and I was free. I walked downhill, knowing full well that I would have to retrace my steps uphill to get home. My mask felt tight on my face, and that was good. I felt protected. I walked about my Chapinero Alto neighborhood in Bogotá, feeling my breath pushing out and pulling in within my mask, not exactly comfortable but not completely unbearable either.

I found a city transformed.

Restaurants that defined the Zona G, the Gourmet dining area of the city, are now not only shuttered, but decimated, their furnishings removed, their windows displaying For Rent/ Space Available signs. The local Starbucks store and other coffee shops were open for to-go only; their indoor seating areas were blocked off for all. Some other restaurants have banners plastered across their facades large enough for passing motorists or bus passengers to see their phone numbers and their now Deliveries Only presence. It’s clear that many restaurants are gone forever. And gone with them the employment they offered to so many. Seeing this new ragged restaurant reality impacted and saddened me.

Corner grocery stores were open. These mom and pop stores have no choice. They open or they go hungry. Taxis were still parked on both sides of 65th Street; their drivers were still congregated in front of the small storefront where they take their coffee on break. Nobody was actually drinking coffee. The drivers wore masks, but there was no social distancing; they were just chatting as close together as before. These are the same drivers who might show up if I ever requested taxi service, those professing their taxi disinfected and their willingness to serve. I am not, other than in an extreme emergency, going to be calling a cab anytime soon.

I stopped in at a vegetable store that had clear guidelines on how to self-distance and shop posted at the entrance. Many stores here are completely open to the street with neither doors nor windows during business hours, so there is ventilation. I paid for my vegetables in cash – fresh avocados for the first time in months – and put the change into a separate pocket of my jacket where is stayed isolated for many days.

In complete contrast to the United States, since March there have been no passenger flights, other than humanitarian, within or to or from Colombia. There is no intercity bus service, the most common way for Colombians to travel. In fact there is no interstate, or interdepartment as it is here, travel without special permission for extenuating circumstances. Where you happened to be toward the end of March is pretty much where you are today.

And so for the moment, the days flow into new days, one day not at all unlike the day before.