When we were kids, my father would load us into the car with a couple of suitcases and a bottle of Chivas Regal. He’d drink the Chivas with his old school buddies just at the moment he arrives in Neiva, the small town in southern Colombia where he was born, a place so hot you’d think someone had doused it with gasoline and put a match to it. My brother Juan and I grew up in the chill of Bogotá, but until we turned sixteen we spent every single one of our vacations in Neiva. We knew that the suffocating heat there unhinges men’s minds.
That’s not a metaphor. During the hottest months, the thermometer settles in at 100 degrees like a nonagenarian in a rocker – no one can make it move. The humidity muddles thought, drowns any desire. Hope there is useless, even immoral. Which is why my father left Neiva when he was twenty-two. My cousin, whom we stayed with on our trips, was only able to leave for a few months, just before he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
To get to Neiva, my father would drive his Renault 18 GTX down Colombia’s central mountain chain until he reached a wide valley and the Magdalena, the river that cuts the country in two. Then he’d drive 120 miles along a straight highway through sorghum and rice fields with the steering wheel vibrating in his hands.
We could have taken a plane, but then the trip would have made no sense. Before we reached our destination, we had to look through the windshield and see the white statues of the virgins to whom drivers commended their souls, and the tongues of flame pouring out of the oil fields. We had to hear the defeating howl of the truck horns and feel the penetrating smell of burnt tire rubber from unexpected panic stops.