El Poder Diabólico del Idioma Extranjero
The airport in Bogota is nowhere you want to be. There are, of course, worse airports out of which to be flying. Airports with notorious crosswinds. Airports hours of traffic from the metro areas they serve. Airports without air conditioning or potable water. Airports with fourteen-dollar beers. But here you are, hours to kill before your flight.
Your attempt to order coffee and a chicken empanada from a patisserie in the international terminal has gotten you no closer to your intended meal than a fly-specked croissant and warm lemonade offered by an unsmiling food service worker. You are about to give up and accept the proffered food, but you are suddenly overcome with the need to respond. Perhaps it is the elevation, maybe it's hunger, who can say? At any rate, something compels you to press the issue. You open your mouth, intending to offer a mild rebuke, or more realistically an apology that you have failed to make yourself understood. Likely you desire to explain how you have failed to apprehend the nuances of the language, that your limited vocabulary or accent is surely to blame for any confusion. Instead, to your surprise what comes out of your mouth, in flawless and very loud high-country Colombian Spanish is something to the effect of, "Listen shithead, if I wanted fucking breakfast food, I would have asked for fucking breakfast food."
No one is more shocked than you. Well, unless you count the onlookers in the airport, the people behind you en la fila, the sad-eyed counterman himself and perhaps most importantly the forty-something mustachioed gentleman whose dark uniform, shining badge and wary expression, not to mention gleaming black revolver, clearly identify him as a member of el areopuerto's policia especiale.
"Señor," he asks of you, "¿Hay algún problema?”
Although he makes this inquiry in Spanish, it is the universal language of cop that necessitates the more urgent translation. What this agent of law enforcement obviously means is: "Is there something so much the matter with you that I have to spend the rest of my morning taking your boisterous lunatic ass to jail?"
You back away from the police officer a half step. Raise your arms in a U shape as if to signal a successful extra point in American football. You start turning your empty palms out. You want no misunderstandings about weapons. It is imperative you de-escalate this situation. You want to explain that everything is cool. Everything is just fine, thank you. You won't be making any more trouble today, perhaps not ever. Instead, as your left hand moves seemingly of its own accord your fist closes—all but your index finger which you notice now points directly at the police officer.
"¡Un facista!" you shout. "Aqui. ¡Aqui en este aeropuerto, es un facista! ¡Miren todos!"
Unsurprisingly, this action has done little to reassure the officer that you are not a threat, not a problem urgently needing to be dealt with. Of course, you're likely not the first extranjero in the Bogota airport to be artificially stimulated into bad choices. At any rate, he draws his pistol, radios for backup.
In minutes—this is Bogota, remember—a dozen heavily-armed men appear out of nowhere with the intention of surrounding you. You are not high on cocaine. You are not even high on Advil. You weigh informing the swarming police that you may be the victim of demonic possession. After considering how this might play out long enough for an officer near the Claro kiosk to activate the laser sighting on his rifle, you decide you would be better off with everyone involved concluding you are merely high on cocaine.
You review your Columbian itinerary for clues to this philological conundrum. The architectural tour of the walled city of Cartagena des Indias surely cannot be to blame. The cooking classes in Medellin? No via. Cursed jungle trek from Minca to Ciudad Perdida to gaze on the sacred, forbidden idols? ¿Quien sabe?
But watching the body-armor stilted movements of la policia, transfixed by the glimmer of the fluorescent lights off their riot shields, you realize contemplating the genesis of this linguistic phenomena may not be the best place to expend your limited time or energies.
Gathering every scintilla of effort you can manage, you squeak out in barely audible English, a hint of a whisper. "I am so sorry. I have no idea what's happening."
No one, of course, can hear a word you say over the din of the airport, the chatter of the crowd, the hiss of a nearby espresso machine. An officer cautiously leans in, lowers his machine pistol, cups his ear.
"¿Como?" he asks. "¿Que dijiste?"
“Callate!" shouts el Jefe de Seguridad del Aeropuerto.
From the whirr of the escalator to the barks of the drug sniffing dogs, everything in the El Dorado International Airport seems to pause.
Finally having the undivided attention of all, you are desperate to proclaim your innocence. Tell of you own bafflement. But rather than the measured declamation of blamelessness you intend, you begin to shout about the dire and immediate need for LA REVOLUTIÓN! As dozens of la policia especiale flank you like an opposing army, you channel Simon Bolivar, channel Che Guevara, channel a young, prelapsarian Fidel Castro.
A gathering crowd—initially having assembled for the sheer entertainment of seeing some American maniac hauled off to his just desserts—swells like a broken wrist. Skeptical at first, la gente begin to nod as you tick off injustice after injustice. In time they are chanting “¡Si, es verdad!” at your every utterance. “¡Las corporaciones están destruyendo el mundo!” you tell la gente. “¡El planeta está jodido!” you shout to the rafters. “¡Nosotros tenemos que luchar contra los bastardos!”
The police are significantly less interested in your hackneyed exhortations about social and ecological justice than in maintaining order in the International Terminal of El Dorado airport. When you raise a closed fist skyward and suggest marching on La Capital, a billy club comes down hard across your parietal bone, dropping you to the patterned terrazzo floor. Stainless steel handcuffs bite into your wrists. Your involuntarily recitation of Zapata should give way to imitating a silence-embracing Buddhist saint. But it’s too late. The crowd’s fury has taken on a life of its own. A riot has erupted on Concourse A.
As you are led off to a holding cell in customs, looters smash displays, molest luggage, turn duty free upside down. Chairs splinter shopfront windows. Luggage fires swell at baggage claim.
Days later you come to yourself again, emerald canopy of jungle towering above you, prison break little more than a memory. The high, white peaks of the Andes soar in the distance. A dozen camouflaged men encircle you clutching weapons, mostly automatic. A grizzled veteran pushes a topographical map into your outstretched hand. Although your espanol diabólico has deserted you as rapidly—as inexplicably—as it came, it seems to have endured long enough for you to assume command of the scraggly remnants of this anti-capitalist militia. You raise your rifle skyward, gesture a move to the east. Your men follow you, pushing deeper into la jungla.
Damian Dressick is the author of the novel 40 Patchtown (Bottom Dog Press) and the flash collection Fables of the Deconstruction (CLASH Books). His writing has appeared in more than seventy literary journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s New Micro, Electric Literature, Post Road, New Orleans Review, Cleaver, CutBank, Smokelong Quarterly, and New World Writing. A Blue Mountain Residency Fellow, Dressick is the winner of the Harriette Arnow Award and the Jesse Stuart Prize. He co-hosts WANA: LIVE!, a (largely) virtual reading series that brings some of the best Appalachian writers to the world. Damian also serves as Editor-in-Chief for the journal Appalachian Lit.