The Jungle

 

Laura Steiner

 

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She has long hair and she’s naked. Except she is wearing shoes. I don’t know what her name is, or what she does.

All I know is that she is the jungle.

 

It happens in S’s car when I’m trying to convince him to come to a party and playing Evil Woman doesn’t work. I take out the lethal weapon: Joe Arroyo. Bongos, guitars, a man’s voice telling a heartbreak story, the whole car is full of salsa. S gets excited. “I went salsa dancing in Mexico,” he says. “So fun.”

I turn to look at him.

And that’s when I say it, “This isn’t just fun,” considerable pause, "this is the sound of my home." I am exaggerating here. When was the last time I sat down in my home to listen to salsa? But what I’m trying to say is that this is what Colombia feels like. This is what Colombia feels like when I’m on the other side of the world, in a car that’s going down the opposite side of the road.

Homesickness is a strange beast.

  Portrait by the author

Portrait by the author

When I was growing up my mother used to send me off to sleep-overs armed with apple-juice-boxes. She knew the thing was an elixir against homesickness.  Years later when I’m still missing the tropics but sleeping in some other place I think of salsa because my mother cannot send apple juice all the way to South Africa.

But now I’ve gone off and painted S the most clichéd version of Colombia: heat, passion and people dancing salsa on the street. The reality looks more like a grey and cold Bogotá for half the year, ginormous mountains but no jungle. And sure, there is salsa, but people aren’t exactly dancing on the street. Bogotá is a two-hour plane ride and a lifetime away from that steamy jungle.

I’ve been to the Amazon once. It was during a school trip. We took vitamin B and thiamine a week before which meant peeing a radioactive yellow. We rubbed ethanol on our skin and wore long sleeve shirts and pants and rubber boots up to our knees. We tucked our mosquito net tightly in the hammocks. We did a lot of things. But the mosquitoes still attacked.

I didn’t grow up in that jungle.

Bogotá is a concrete jungle of 10 million people. It’s a Latin American metropolis. The jaguars and the snakes are kilometers away but there are predators in the city who are ready to catcall you and break into your house on Sunday and steal the family jewels and your mother's new jacket.

Salsa isn’t playing on the street but it is inside all the yellow taxis and the buses with the Virgin Mary hanging from the driver’s mirror. Salsa plays in corner stores in small rural towns where men with mustaches and t-shirts that are too short for their beer bellies sit in white plastic chairs drinking beer as the sun starts coming down.

And salsa is a lifeline to home right now.

It’s the lyrics and the sounds of nostalgia. Of being 12 years old and in the basement of a house where there’s a smoke machine in the corner and a dj in the center and I’m sweating cold hoping I’ll get asked to dance. The kiddie flirt was the usual who-ignores-who-and-then-strikes-with-eye-contact, but it was mainly being asked out to dance. In the game of boy meets girl and they get to hold hands, it became sort of imperative to be good at salsa.

Tuesday afternoons we would congregate in my best friend’s cousin’s garage as she directed: “Un, dos, tres, un, dos, tres.” Right foot forward, left foot up. Right foot right, left foot up. Right foot center, left foot up. And repeat on the other side. We eventually did get good at dancing but mostly when we realised it wasn’t about counting but rather about moving freely to Mr Arroyo’s bongos and his voice.

18 years of flirting with salsa and then I left to live abroad. It’s one of those cold grey and gloomy days in London sometime in November and J, who is from somewhere else, asks if I want to go watch a movie the plot of which seems to be "and then the jungle." Sure. A little green, even if on the screen, will inoculate anyone against the grim weather.

There’s no green in the film. It’s all black and white and grey and all of those colours are just a visual code for green.  There’s no secret here, no-one could miss the green.

The movie is stunning. And I’m lost for words. I am embarrassed to tell J when the movie has ended and we’re both so moved, just how little I actually know about the Colombian jungle.

I’ve heard people say that the jungle can drive you mad. It’s the lack of light that can actually go through the green canopy and every shade of green that maddens you. The maddening jungle is the one I couldn't see through any window of my childhood, it remains to be a far-off place that once turned my pee yellow. Now the jungle is watching me from beyond the ocean. In a car that’s going down the opposite side of the road, I see the jungle watching me and I watch it back. The only color I feel now is green, dark green.

She has long hair and she’s naked. Except she is wearing shoes. I don’t what her name is, or what she does.

All I know is that she is the jungle.

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Laura Steiner is a writer, performer and improviser from Colombia currently based in London. She has a secret, not so secret, crush on South Africa.