The Discreet Charm of Big Ugly Cities

Saludos desde Ecuador! Güera here. I am proud and happy to introduce the next guest writer to La Güera Viajera: Robbie Bruens. He and I met through a Bay Area book club where we promptly realized that we were both planning to escape our humdrum jobs and overpriced apartments for the unknown delights of South America. Once abroad, we had the good fortune to meet up in many an urban center, from Bogotá to Cuenca (where I stayed), and had many an adventure together, including the infamous mugging. With no further ado, the wordy wanderings of Robbie (may we meet again in some other strange monstropolis):

To get on the Transmilenio Metrobus without paying a fare, the goblins and mutants of Bogotá hop up onto the slim ledge of the bus stop’s platform, raised a few feet above the street. Then they pry open the sliding glass doors that normally only permit entry when a bus stops there. It was exactly these kind of mutants, disguised as a kind of teen girl squad of youthful delinquents, that greeted us as we exited through the turnstile at Avenida Jiménez. They begged us for beer money but we demurred,  waving away their moans with a perdón. Off the raised platform, the gloom and unfamiliarity of the street was an immediate alert that we had gotten off at the wrong place.

Crossing the street to turn around and walk back up the block in the direction we had just come from, I looked up at the sky of darkening violet, that evening’s dusk already a distant memory. On this side of Jiménez, more mutants and goblins approached us. Unlike the last group, they did not disguise themselves in the skins of teenaged girls. We walked past them, ignoring the palpable queasy trepidations that now quaked and flowed freely in our stomachs and in the puddles on the street as our pace quickened. My traveling companion, a Ms. Kaelyn Davis of San Juan Capistrano, California, murmured a frightening premonition or an omen of doom, or perhaps it was the opposite: a hope for a way out, a dream for the future, a prayer for peace on earth. And to tell you the truth, it may have been me who was murmuring, but I can’t say for sure now–it’s all a blur.

In the sky I saw a widening pit the color of iron, and as suddenly as pus bursts from a wart I felt the presence of two alien priestesses. They wore black robes and one’s face exhibited several tumors and pustules while the other’s neck bulged with an enormous goiter. They looked like a more sinister strain of the goblins and mutants who were now following us from behind. But in the split second before the whole dozen monsters descended on us, I saw no goiter, no pockmarks or rotting growths, but only feverish faces hungry for a score, hardened by–and to–vulnerability. They fell upon us, the whole lot, even the begging teenagers who joined in on the fun from across the street. At first, I struggled and tried to break away in a run, but when I thought I saw the gleam of a knife I eventually sank to the ground, whispering easy, easy, relax–words they didn’t understand since I had forgotten my Spanish and everything else in that moment.

(I’ll let you in on a little secret, if you’ll excuse the extended parenthetical: my companion comported herself in battle rather admirably, and much more valiantly than I in my scrambling disorder. I saw her slam a goblin bodily into the ruffled metal curtain pulled down over a closed storefront.)

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This is why many people fear and hate big cities–the crime, the violence, the chaos, the crowding, the pollution and all the other hazards and nuisances associated with modern urban life. In the early days of capitalism, before anyone thought to call it that, cities literally consumed people. Cesspools of disease and death, their birth rates weren’t high enough to keep up with outbreaks of plagues and wars. London, Paris and the other great European metropoles would have declined rapidly had it not been for a constant influx of peasants migrating in from the countryside.

The modern city, then, has always possessed qualities both vampirical and chimerical. So I can sympathize when some dismiss cities like Bogotá as noisy, dirty, traffic-choked, dangerous places. Go to Cartagena instead, they say. See the colonial walls, the old churches, the fortress that defended the harbor from Sir Francis Drake. With the conviction that they are helping you avoid unpleasantness, they’ll tell you that you might have to fly into Peru via Lima, but don’t waste any time there–go on to Cuzco in a hurry, see how they built the cathedral on top of the old Incan temple, then take the train to Machu Picchu–it’s a wonder of the world, don’t you know? You can skip São Paulo, they’ll advise knowingly. It’s just for businessmen and bankers. Visit Rio, be saved by Christ the Redeemer, get your tan on at Copacabana and Ipanema. And everyone knows you go to México for Cancún and Cabo, not the monstrous Distrito Federal, also known as Mexico City, right?  

In short, they will say don’t travel halfway around the world to hang out in big ugly cities. It sounds like reasonable advice, especially if you’re coming from a big ugly city (henceforth I’ll abbreviate as BUC) yourself. But I come from the area around San Francisco, which happens to be a small beautiful city, ideal for a postcard. And as it turns out, I really love BUCs. Because what I’ve discovered about BUCs is that they have character. They have soul. They have a story to tell. In fact, they have a million stories to tell. They’re not eager to impress tourists or to smile for the postcard. They’re living, breathing animals–or a mutant combination of animals, you might say–and they come with all the mess and complication and beauty that accompanies that designation.

In Lima, the BUC capital of Peru, I fell hard for a neighborhood called Barranco, which is like a bookish, ravine-rutted, tree-choked Edinburgh if you repainted it in the vibrant colors commonly found in the cities and towns of Latin America and invested it with the hipster ambiance of Brooklyn or the Mission district in San Francisco.

Near Barranco’s main plaza is La Libre, a bookshop run by an expat couple from Spain. They regularly host events: one night there might be an opening of a new photography exhibition in the store’s art galley and the very next night, a book release party. Chilcanos flow throughout the night and, afterwards, always an exodus to Juanito’s for cheap beer and jamón del país sandwiches.

I found myself in La Libre for the third time in a week for an impromptu colloquium on the work of my favorite author, the Chilean itinerant Roberto Bolaño. A young man who went by the enigmatic nickname Sombra recited Bolaño’s words from memory with a fiendish sort of glee in his eyes. Afterwards, Sombra and I and the only other attendee of the colloquium (Diego, a film student) went rambling in the streets with chilled bottles of quinoa beer in hand. As we got progressively drunker, at one point climbing a fence into a private outlook on the cliffs that raise the city several hundred feet above the Pacific, a fence that resembled those in photographs I had seen in La Libre not so many days before, I thought of the passed out body of a man devastated by drink that Ms. Kaelyn Davis and I had stepped over just the previous day near the Bridge of Sighs. Tomorrow, I ruminated, maybe it will be my body in the ravine next to the bridge.

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I find an exuberant pleasure in exploring the various different neighborhoods contained within a BUC. In the endless urban expanse of São Paulo (affectionately nicknamed “Sampa” by locals), a city studded with radio towers that look like giant oil derricks drilling for media, there are so many bairros that I can feel myself getting lost just thinking of them.  

In Sampa´s bittersweet abyss, I remember bar-hopping along Rua Augusta, dancing in street parties in Pinheiros and Sumaré, and walking down Avenida Paulista where the skyscrapers of steel and glass cast shadows across the bodies that sleep on cardboard. During the Lunar New Year in Liberdade, dragons run through the streets while onlookers eat steaming hot potstickers. And when I close my eyes, I can still smell the guava tree on Tupi Street in Higienópolis.

Among the pink and green tiled high rises of Perdizes, even penthouses must contend with the water shortage that now parches the city. A scarcity of water has long been the reality in the favelas hidden around Sampa’s fringes, under pressure from the government to legitimize and modernize their living conditions. Yet even mutants and goblins need a bit of water to survive, and what does Mr. Alckmin plan to do about that?

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The only city in Latin America that rivals São Paulo in size and importance is most commonly referred to as D.F., though gringos might be more familiar with the name Mexico City. But somehow D.F., an abbreviation for Distrito Federal, seems like the more appropriate moniker, since it feels like thirty cities in one. Paseo de la Reforma, the wide boulevard that runs through the heart of the city like a pulsing artery of cosmopolitanism, is lined with skyscrapers and trees while traffic flows through it in an eternal current. On Sundays, this traffic is composed entirely of cyclists and rollerbladers. There’s a universe of difference between it and the borough of Coyoacán, though in reality only a handful of miles separate the two. Coyoacán, with its stocky and vibrantly colorful buildings, the old church of San Juan Bautista, its water-breathing twin coyote fountain, its weekend craft markets, and its rich cultural history full of names like Frida and Trotsky, adheres more closely to what an outsider’s idealized stereotype of a Mexican town might look like. Yet let it be known that a major feature the two districts share is an abundance of trees, in defiance of an outdated understanding of D.F. as irredeemably dirty and polluted.

Elsewhere across D.F., the only pattern you may find is an almost vertiginous diversity, whether in its nightlife, with a certain predilection for drag queens and karaoke bars and drag queens singing in karaoke bars, or in its seemingly bottomless pool of museums. A little old Japanese Mexican runs the Museum of Antique Toys, which boasts a half dozen large rooms filled with toys from your childhood as well as your parents’ childhood, and despite its stubborn insistence on independence from all forms of government or corporate patronage, it might one day house your children’s toys too. There’s a comic book store that doubles as an art gallery in the next neighborhood over, and you might find a few things to add to your record collection as well while you’re there. D.F. lives and breathes artistic and political expression, finding shape in a room made of clay which is constantly being remodeled by its visitors, or in the frequent protests in the form of marches along Reforma against Monsanto, the corrupt president, or the even more corrupt police and judiciary.

So what is D.F.? I find answering this question helps me get to the core of what I find alluring about BUCs more generally. D.F. is a city of countless parks and museums, a city of big broad boulevards choked by traffic and trees, a city of crime and art, corruption and protest, a city of markets and tacos and theater and street performers, a city most of all of life in all its innumerable pullulating forms.

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I’ll grant you that sometimes cities like this can appear big and ugly and even monstrous. They’ll eat you up. If they don’t literally kill you, they’ll corrupt you until you can’t recognize yourself in the mirror anymore. You’ll become a goblin or a mutant yourself. It won’t be long before you’re the one descending from a metallic sky on some innocent village on another side of the planet or galaxy to offer salvation in the form of a zombie virus you spread by biting the neck or eating the brains of some poor country bumpkin.

But in another sense, big ugly cities, these cruel monsters I wish to befriend even when they give me a nasty bite on the neck, only reflect the blackness and morbidity of humanity itself. And alongside this reflection they display our species’ more admirable qualities: the joyous carousing that fills up a thousand bars and clubs every night, the healthful leisure seeking that occupies parks and green spaces on a warm summer afternoon, the curiosity and thirst for profundity that packs museums and libraries, the hard working righteous crusading of living wage campaigns, environmental initiatives, union struggles, antiwar marches, riotous protests against aggressive police forces, power hungry governments, soulless and heedless corporations–all of which now find their most fertile soil for growth in large cities.

In these clamorous engines of creative destruction and progress (contested terms though both may be), in these boiling cauldrons of culture, in these combustible cesspools that grab your attention and contort your soul, I have glimpsed a yearning deep within me. I want to be a mutant, a goblin, an alien priestess, a stranger in a wicked and unfamiliar conurbation; I want to be absorbed and taken over, to mix and intermingle, to consume and be consumed. In Big Ugly Cities, I have found and lost myself. You should come along next time. It will change your life, I swear.


Robbie Bruens has spent the last year aimlessly wandering about Latin America. Before that, he lived in San Francisco where he co-founded the writer’s workshop and publishing collective If I Told Napoleon and wrote scripts for animated videos about what happens when you fall down and can’t get back up. You can find more of his travel writing at his new WordPress blog, Tales of Vagabondage.

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