Roberto Bolaño and the Only Way You’ll Ever Be Great

I woke up this morning at five something because of an intense desire to urinate, and couldn’t get back to sleep for the rest of the morning. That is, I don’t think I got back to sleep. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. On the one hand I like to think I didn’t lay there for two hours, since I didn’t actually exit my bed until 7:30am. And even then I didn’t exit completely. I got out of bed, checked the ripeness of my avocados (I bought a bag of five yesterday for just over a dollar), opened my curtains to let in the fresh Guadalajara morning air, and then got back in bed and rated Instagram ads for exactly 18 minutes.

I still sleep with white noise for colicky babies, because it drowns out most of the annoying sounds sometimes produced by my neighbors and roommates. The shower knob, for example, is about 16 inches from my head as the crow pecks, and makes a terrible squeaking noise every time it’s turned on. Yesterday, my roommate, Rodolfo, must’ve showered for 45 minutes. After he was done he had to mop the floor, such was the deluge produced. And yet, I get the feeling this is normal for him. Maybe he doesn’t bathe often, but when he does, he really bathes. Come to think of it, yesterday was the first day I’d ever seen him bathe. And it’s not like he smells. Rodolfo is a wonderful guy. Our conversations now include jokes on a regular basis. We often talk about Bill, my aloe plant. Today the first thing I did when I got up was check on Bill. He has a new shoot sprouting right in the middle of the two main shoots, and this shoot looks fairly healthy. I still think Bill has a good chance of surviving. His main fronds, though, worry me. One looks like it might be dying. I don’t know what to do at this point. I’ve talked to several people about aloe plant care. I’ve consulted websites (*website). And everyone says the same thing: “Aloe plants are so easy to take care of.” Which doesn’t really help me. Imagine if you went to the doctor because your baby was sick and the only thing she said was, “I don’t know what the problem is. Babies are so easy to take care of.”

Last night I fell asleep reading the book La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I didn’t like it at first, because it seemed too simple and predictable. It had one sentence that was something like, “The first thing my dad told me….” or “The first thing I remember…” which is such a cliche sentence, something I would write, so I was ready to put it down, but the book was steadfast. What do I mean by steadfast? I mean that it didn’t deviate in tone, that it wasn’t self-conscious, that it didn’t doubt itself, that it gave you the feeling — and I’ve talked about this before — that: “This is real. I mean, it’s a novel, but it’s real. And if you don’t think it’s real, then (expletive) you.” This is how Roberto Bolaño books feel, though Roberto Bolaño takes it a step further in that he doesn’t take it anywhere at all. His books say: “This is real. I mean, it’s not real, but it’s real. And I don’t care whether or not you think it’s real. Thinking about what you thought about this novel would never in several millennia cross my mind.” This indifference towards the reader is key if you want to become a great novelist. You must not care about what the reader wants or needs. But it mustn’t be disdain. It must be indifference. And indifference is impossible to fake.

I haven’t acquired this indifference, and I don’t know if I’ll ever acquire it. I care about what readers think. When someone says they liked a blog post I immediately re-read the blog post in question, congratulating myself on my good writing (all the while wondering whether it’s really good). And when someone says something bad about a post it ruins me, even though a voice deep down wonders whether they’re wrong. And this is what I was getting at with Bolaño. It’s not like he cares about whether he’s right or you’re wrong when it comes to his books. It’s that your right to an opinion doesn’t exist.

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La Teteria

la teteria guadalajara

When I come to La Tetería, Guadalajara’s premiere tea house and where the song “Here With Me” by Didot is currently playing over the speakers, I usually order a matcha frappe. But sometimes, as the waiter Gustavo just informed me, who is quickly going from being just a waiter at a tea shop to a kindred spirt (he’s Argentinian and there’s been talk of us drinking mate together), they have “stock problems.” Today is one of those days. There are no matcha frappes. There are no green chai frappes. And the girl sitting in front of me, who might be part goddess and who I’ve spent the last five minutes staring at, just ordered the last piece of cheesecake.

The first time I ever had a matcha frappe at La Tetería I was on a Tinder date with a girl named Daniela. Daniela was beautiful and funny and smart, but I barely noticed, so engrossed was I in my matcha frappe. I try to limit my matcha frappe intake, because they’re kind of expensive and very sweet. Even so, if I’m bored, or feeling a bit down, or just feeling any emotion that is vaguely human, I try to make a visit to La Tetería for one of these drinks. It would be hard to have a bad time while drinking a matcha frappe. Maybe if you were bleeding from a head wound, but even then I think you’d forget about it until the frappe was gone.

I never thought I’d be a frappe guy.

Life is full of surprises.

La Tetería is located in Guadalajara’s Americana neighborhood, a five minute walk from the American Consulate and about a seven minute walk from Chapultepec, an area (basically a street) famous for its nightlife, bars, restaurants, high prices, pedestrian walkway, outdoor market, and apparently (according to Marta, the lonche lady) weekend violence. This is the area where I work, and so I walk by La Teteria at least once a day. It’s perched on Calle Libertad, a street with low traffic flanked by all kinds of towering tropical trees that provide bountiful amounts of shade. The front part of La Teteria is a cool terrace where there always seems to be a breeze even on the hottest days. There’s also an inner courtyard where I sometimes like to go at night and sip my matcha frappe and look up at the sky and think about what might’ve been, what is, and what still could be.

Today La Teteria is slow and I’ve ordered a regular chai frappe, which I’ve already finished. When I got here Gustavo and I had a long conversation about my MacBook charger, which broke last night and which I spent all morning trying to replace. We also talked, as we usually do, about his upcoming trip to Argentina.

“I’m so jealous,” I said, “I should be in Argentina or Chile.”

“But you get to be here,” he said.

“Yeah, but…”

I trailed off, because Gustavo had a damn good point. I could be jealous of the people in Buenos Aires, but I get to be here. I could be jealous of the people in Paris, but I get to be here. I could be jealous of the people in Hyderabad, or Seoul, or Tokyo, or Regina, or Montreal, or Port Orchard, or Saskatoon, but I get to be here. Here in the shade, in a comfortable chair, feeling the breeze, sipping a chai frappe. Which isn’t matcha, but almost just as good.

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50 Shades of Earl Grey

“Hardwood floors! Tasteful lighting! A garden! Cool trinkets! A beautiful ivy plant I thought was fake but is actually totally real!”

I’m imagining a torture situation in which I have to yell out true statements about Taller de Te, Bogota’s number one specialty tea shop. Every time I yell out something false Adriana, one of the owners, clad in hip-high leather boots, cracks me across the stomach with a sock full of quarters.

“Name our four most exquisite specialty teas,” she says in her lilting Colombian accent.

I think about it. “Coca leaf tea.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“Coca leaf tea!”

The quarters stay steady.

“Sencha rose?”

She whips me across the abdomen. “Sencha Rose is not specialty!”

I frantically search my memory banks.  There is one tea.  It’s from China and of the particular variety they stock only 300 bricks were ever produced.  But what is it called?  Pearl?  Po-Er?  It’s some kind of Chinese name.  

“Pearl?” I venture.

“What did you say?” 

“Pearl,” I say again.

She throws back her head and laughs.  “There is no ‘Pearl’ tea here, my dear.  There is only Pu-erh.  It is the most exquisite tea we have.”

I was so close. “Pu-erh! Pu-erh!  Pu-errrrrrrr!” I scream, but it’s too late. There’s a grunt and the sock whizzes through the air. I gasp for breath and look up at Adriana. She’s smiling and stroking the sock of quarters as if it were a Shar Pei. I groan with delicious pain and slip into unconsciousness…

Located in the leafy Chapinero Alto district, Taller de Te is the best tea shop in Bogota.  In a country known for its coffee, Taller de Te has distinguished itself in the world of tea.  The shop boasts exotic teas from around the world: coca leaf tea, high-grade matcha tea, and an exotic Pu-erh of which only 300 bricks were produced. Sometimes when I go into the shop I just sit and there and mutter the words Pu-erh to myself. I’m not quite sure how to pronounce it, but I love how it rolls off the tongue. Pu-erh. Pu-erh. Pu-errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrh.

Today Taller de Te is crowded. This is usually not the case. Usually I’m the only customer. But today is Saturday and the Bogotanos are out in force. They need their tea, they need it loose-leaf, and they need it now. The shop is buzzing. It smells like cheap glue because Carla, one of other owners, is making crafts. I feel 70% happy and 30% like I might pass out. I’ve just ordered a “Bollywood Chai Tea” for the horrendous price of 10,000 COP (3.40 USD). The music that’s playing is tasteful. For some reason the fact that it’s so tasteful is irritating. What standard of perfection! I shall never live up to it. I am flesh and bone. I experience primitive emotions like lust and envy. I do not deserve to drink this tea. I deserve to be flogged by Adriana. Pu-erh! Pu-erh!

My chai latte comes. It smells like a gingerbread house. It smells like Christmas. I feel like I’m Hansel of Hansel and Gretel, being led toward the house of a witch. Except instead of breadcrumbs dotting the path there are tiny cups of steaming-hot chai. And instead of being in the forest I’m in a South American metropolis. And instead of being led toward the house of a witch I’m being led towards Adriana, who in real life is polite and helpful, with cute bangs and skin like the soft glow of a sunrise. She might be the most beautiful tea shop worker in northeastern Bogota. She places the chai latte in front me. I say “Thank you.” She says, “OK.”

The chai is delicious. It’s perfectly sweetened with panela (sugarcane). Not too sweet, though — Adriana would never allow that. I sip it and gaze into the garden. Night falls around us in this garden of chai and evil. The spices are exquisite. I detect cardamom. I slip into a kind of reverie and soon the tea is gone. I’m not satisfied; I want more. But more what? More milk? More spices? More tasteful decoration?

I look over at Adriana.  In my mind she hikes up her skirt to show off her hip-length boots and reaches for a sock of quarters. She knows what I want more of. Pu-erh. Pu-erh! Pu-errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrh.