Bogotá brings out the worst in me, mostly because I want to understand what has made the country of my birth disintegrate. I hold everyone guilty. Wherever I go, I arrive with a stern face and the proverbial big stick that I wave in silent accusation. Twenty-four hours after my arrival, I still don’t feel at home, but as the hours pass my apprehension starts to give. It is difficult to hold my stance of constant questioning when all I see is beauty around me: Bogotá, flanked by the luscious green Andes that seem to kiss the sky, is so beautiful it can mesmerize; my parents’ home is lovely, and all I receive from family and friends is warmth. Over the years, I’ve become less indignant as I try to reconcile the situation of the country with the comforts of my parents’ lives. I am only now starting to comprehend how difficult it must be to live with war constantly at your side. My father raises the volume of the TV set as the evening news begins; the leading story is about a bomb that was detonated by the army in a nearby hamlet. I sit in silence and admiration as I see that even amid the stories of horror and hopelessness that the television flashes, my brother and his fiancee are a couple in love, planning a wedding and a future together.
Cristina, my brother’s bride-to-be, is finishing a degree in political science, and I would like to know more about her career interests and her opinions about the way our government and society is run. But as I see her sitting next to my brother on the leather sofa, his hand on her knee, I see a bride worried about the things every bride is worried about five days before her big day. For one, she was petrified about meeting me. I am the “difficult sister” who published a book condemning the patriarchal and traditional life that she has chosen. But as I listen to her talk with my mother about the preparations for Saturday’s wedding and her excitement about the honeymoon trip to Venice and the Greek islands, I am simply happy to see that my brother is marrying a beautiful young woman with the grace of a Degas dancer and the long delicate features of a Giacometti, a soft-spoken 23-year-old girl who is excited about the life ahead of her. She wants to be a professional, a mother, and a wife in a country that offers despair even during happy occasions.
My mother takes out the photo albums of their engagement party. My brother, Jose Antonio, got engaged to Cristina in February, in a ceremony so old-fashioned that when I called to congratulate them I told them that it was right out of a novel by Jorge Isaacs, a 19th-century Colombian novelist. To formalize the engagement, my parents and brother flew to Manizales, a small city and the center of Colombia’s coffee region, where Cristina is from and where her parents still live. The champagne toast was about to begin when the phone rang with bad news. A bomb had just exploded in Bogotá. It was the first time the rebels had attacked the country’s capital—until then, the war had been fought outside the main cities. It was also the first time the rebels had struck an upscale neighborhood, a private club where families my family knew ate dinner, played squash, and took saunas. Thirty-six people died. As we look at the pictures, the newscaster announces, in a rather strange coincidence, that Club El Nogal, as the place is called, had that morning reopened its doors. The footage shows many of the survivors, club members, and employees, some still showing scars and walking with crutches, attending a solemn ceremony. Since I knew that the explosion had been on the day of the engagement, I try to talk about it with Cristina, but she just nods her head and turns to my mother, who is showing her a present that has recently arrived.
She also opened presents earlier today, at the bridal shower that my mother’s friend organized for her. A bridal shower could not have been more perfect. A house could not have been lovelier. The geraniums in the garden were in full bloom; the vases inside the house overflowed with white roses and orange and yellow orchids. The stuffed chicken breasts and the chocolate mousse were exquisite. The ladies were funny, charming, and completely committed to not letting war ruin this wedding. But as I walk past the library I notice the title of one of the books: Kidnap-Hijack-Seige: How To Survive as a Hostage.