Down the Rabbit Hole in Bogotá

The True Story of a Sober Trip Through Wonderland

In front of the restaurant, the blades of a windmill spin circles of fairy light through the sky. The air holds the light, so that the darkness glows reddish, dense with colour. The trees growing out of the pavements seem stripped of nature and wrapped in multi-coloured bulbous lights (like the string of large bulbs dad hangs around the slender green-brown tree in the drive, so that those floating pinpricks of colour are my first greeting when I arrive home at Christmas time). A zebra stands on her hind legs, a fore leg cocked on her hip, rocking a blue cap which matches the waistcoat she is wearing open to her black-and-white hips, displaying the mounds of large, striped breasts (definite plastic surgery). She grins at me, a grin thrown out like a frisbee, carelessly into the air, a floating arc. We shuffle into the vague semblance of a queue. I am not quite sure what is going on. A crucial bit of information is missing, perhaps, a link in the chain to explain the presence of the cow on the roof, overlooking us as she stands there with small golden wings and a neon-blue halo. Sam pays our entrance fee, and I watch the cow stare straight, over our heads and far into the night. (What is the point of a cover, to a restaurant? Perhaps they charge entrance to make it exclusive, or maybe to ensure no-one comes along just for the show. Whatever the reason, we are caught in the web, the spider’s web spun of curiosity and hype — ‘indescribable’ the Lonely Planet declared, ‘if it’s not the most insane night you have ever had, you’ve done too many drugs’ — and we made sure to be free on the maddest night of them all). Now, here we are, each clutching a yellow ticket decorated with a picture of a baby saint bordered by swirls of black, ‘Yo rumbiaré’ inscribed on its plinth. An attendant tears off the stub and we push forwards, through a turnstile and down the rabbit hole.

A cavern of junkhouse kitsch. A genie’s cave of forgotten treasure and psychedelic wishes. The scene crowds in instantly, without mercy, like a swarm of neon wasps bearing down on me. Glowing signs, dangling objects, swirling lights. The full moon of a bright clock face. Look HERE and HERE, point point point, arrows pricking their way through the chaos, up down diagonal thin fat red green white. Stars, hearts, spinning wheels of lights. 2for1, You Are Here, Salida, Children, Amor. People shifting, moving, dancing as the sky twirls and sways uncertainly. I am a whirlpool of sound waves, a reverse epicentre for the earthquake of clashing songs. A blaze, ablaze with stimuli, until:

a gentle push from behind, Go on, ask the attendant, ‘Tenemos una reservacion’, then we follow. Past wooden tables and a long cluttered bar as a band of gypsies wanders through the caverns, past customers dancing between the tables as they wait for their food, past the microcosm of a kitchen: a blaze of stove fire, and another: the scurry of people clad in white, and another: the clang of pots and pans. Then, a brick tunnel with shallow steps leading into it. I shuffle in and round a bend, and here we are, standing beside an empty table for two, with a raised view through several caverns of salvaged treasure.

Mario introduces himself. Mario the plumber, at our service, and here to present us with a magazine. So, I sit down facing Sam, the mist of the rumba beats heavy in the air and settling on our skin. With difficulty I tear myself away from the present world and dive into the reading material (sixty-two pages for a menu!), into a world where the pop artwork crowds out the words, pushing them behind printed leaves, swirling flowers, off the page and onto the table. I can’t concentrate with my lap full of jumbled letters, never mind deciphering the dizzyingly colourful labyrinth of a menu.

I watch as the staff gypsies spot us and encircle our small table. We are extranjeros, new to Colombia, new to rumba, new to this mad mad night so: WELCOME, have a yellow-blue-red sash and you, here, I want to DANCE with you, up up and roooound, move like the lights, move like the flashes, push away the night and forget that you are a stiff English reed, move and remember Bienvenido a la tierrita! A gypsy spins me, the golden coins of her headdress twinkling through the red mist, I am a spinning top beneath her finger, as the red mist of the rumba swirls around me, over me. Sam, at the table, grins, grins that pull me in close, mooring lines for each spin, his face, his smile, glowing brighter than all the dangling treasures and flickering candles, my one fixed point in the chaos, this hallucinogenic trip through Wonderland.

The mist recedes, flowing over the balcony and into a lower cavern and the gypsies glide away with it. Time for a drink, fresh mandarin snow and vodka to help us through the blizzard of confetti and hedonism. I pick up the menu again (shit, London prices!), and point and choose. Then, back to the sensory storm.

Four women sit around the table next to us, dressed and made up for a night out, their laughter bubbling like champagne from a bottle. Suddenly, one of them is up, her hips swaying, her kohl-darkened eyes reflecting the lights dangling above us as a man appears. Nothing like a pre-dinner dance, so with tiny movements they fluctuate, shift, sway, walk, that endless Latin walk-dance, on and on towards each other. The other girls join in and then another man arrives, and once again the space next to our table is a dancefloor.

Held aloft on a wooden board (here it comes!), the renouncement of Sam’s newly rediscovered vegetarianism; relapse in the form of a funhouse steakhouse. Delivered to our very table, an array of food and drinks.

I tuck in. Good but nothing particularly special. But no matter: they’re not the reason we came.

One by one our plates disappear.

With the bill on our table, a woman hovers close to us, a large ‘$’ on the back of her navy jacket. So, the collector has come by. Another cog in the clockwork of this surreal system. As soon as Sam puts down our money, we take off to explore, through the brick tunnel and into cavern after cavern.

I find a dancefloor and pull Sam in after me, slowly moving into the crowd of swaying bodies, into the haze of the thick rumba mist. I feel the crowd moving like fireworks are fizzing through the bloodstream of each person, bursting out through fingertips, bouncing feet, swaying hips, mi aventura, mi brebaje. Several couples shift and I spot a doorway, a doorway I didn’t know existed. My eyes meet his, then we dive through it together.

We are outside. The street has been closed off and wooden walkways with metal handrails span the tarmac. On the other side of the bridges: more lights, music, people, chaos. We take a deep breath and walk across.

All the trees and pillars are wrapped in blue lights. Glowing red hearts hover in the air; a golden sun floats above us beside a witch on her broomstick; triangular splashes of bunting zigzag through the scene, but this is no English street party. No finger food, or children playing in the street, or raucous cheery singing (those lobster-red noses!). THIS is a Latina world, any signposts lead us right back into the madness, into the sensual darkness and the chaos. Neon lights hover over a vast warren of crowded dancefloors, so I shuffle through with Sam, tourists in this experience, overwhelmed and hypnotised.

It is time to leave. To escape the gimmicks and surrealism and work out a way back into the night.


I look back as our taxi stutters, then pulls away. I’m not sure what just happened — a dream? a drug-induced trip? a loose wire in the sensory threads of my brain? As Wonderland recedes, I flop down and close my eyes. Pinpricks of light dance across the screen of my eyelids. Andrés Carne de Res, the craziest cat of them all.

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