Something more than just a chill in the air

My wife and I stood waiting for a taxi in front of Bogota's El Dorado airport after an overnight flight. The sun wasn't out yet, as female employees from the airport began to stream past us, eager to get to work on time. Having grown up in Bogota, I didn't think much about these women, and a striking similarity among them, which my wife noticed, and then pointed out to me. All of these women, and there were many of them, walked by us holding a handkerchief, scarf or some part of their sweater over their neck, mouth and nose. Though it was a bit chilly due to the time of morning, the weather hardly called for this, and the similarity among all these women prompted my American wife to ask, "Why are they all covering up their mouths and nose?" Without putting a moment of thought into the matter, I responded. "Because of sereno."

What sereno actually is remains a mystery even to those who consider themselves experts on the matter (namely Colombian mothers). But these experts agree that sereno begins roaming the high plains in the Colombian Andes as the sun begins to set every afternoon, looking for ideal victims who have not fully covered their heads, mouths, noses, or shoulders with layers of warm clothing or fabric of some type. At times, sereno

can strike earlier in the day if it's raining, and it's also been known to terrorize Colombianos during the early morning hours (as was the case that day in front of the airport). sereno

is invisible. It's in the air, or perhaps it is the air, no one knows, though they all agree that it prays on the weak (namely children) and causes colds, infections, headaches, upper respiratory issues, and coughs, while making existing issues like aches and pains far worse. Conversely (and surprisingly), sereno can also help get stubborn stains out of clothing, if you merely hang them out overnight in your back patio while they are wet. As it turns out, Sereno giveth, and Sereno taketh away.

One of the earliest films ever made in Colombia, El Sereno De Bogota references the nighttime in general, and doesn't focus on the potentially deadly realities of sereno as Colombian mothers know it.

If this all sounds like a load of misguided crap, it's because it is. The idea of "bad air", in particular during colder nighttime hours, was first put forth in the 1st Century AD, when architectural writer Vitrivius wrote about the potential dangers of the night's air thusly,

...when the morning breezes blow toward the town at sunrise, if they bring with them mist from marshes and, mingled with the mist, the poisonous breath of creatures of the marshes to be wafted into the bodies of the inhabitants, they will make the site unhealthy

In writing about the subject of "bad air", Vitrivius codified what would eventually become the Miasma Theory , which was universally believed to be true until Germ Theory was proposed in the mid 16th century, and was later proven to be true. It was then that scientists discovered that many diseases are caused by microorganisms which are too small to see without magnification, which are usually contracted by coming in contact with the sick, sharing body fluids or simple ingestion. As it turned out, illness did not simply travel in the cold night air, and being exposed to it by not covering up (or, god forbid, leaving a bedroom window open at night) was not the reason for illness spreading.

Mind you, all this happened in the 16th to 17th century, and yet the Miasma Theory is alive and well in Colombia through the greatest scourge to ever come down upon the country's population: sereno , along with its partner in crime el chiflon,  which is the draft of cold air that can come in through a cracked window at night, thus delivering a deadly dose of sereno to an unsuspecting victim.

Abroad

As the Giro d'Italia wears on, and Colombian riders encounter cold rain, and will likely face snow in the last week, I can't help but think of their mothers, watching them on TV, urging their sons to cover up after stages and at night to keep the Italian sereno at bay. And I also imagine their sons obliging. Luckily, Italian teammates (and perhaps even race organizers) will remind them to bundle up, since Italians too believe in something like sereno. They call it un colpo d’aria, and in their case, (as I understand it) it's a gust of air that will hit youand give you all kinds of terrible ailments as a result. This can happen at any time of day, and the air can hit you in your ear, neck, or maybe your mouth. Whatever the case may be, it's best to watch out for it, so I hope riders are behaving accordingly. God only knows what can happen if you get sereno , and thenun colpo d’aria on top of that.

An almost sereno-proof Uran at last year at the Giro. I can only imagine his mom back home in Urrao, wondering why Rigoberto didn't cover up his mouth and nose. 

Rigoberto: "Mom, I didn't completely cover up my face because I was doing a TV interview!" 

Rigo's Mom: "¡Ay dios mio!"  (photo: Velo News)

So despite the fact that I know about the failures of Miasma Theory, and the fact that I was in Italy last year during a pretty cold time (though not once did air hit me) I should tell you about this morning. As the sun came out, and I got ready to ride, common sense and reason governed my actions. I set aside the balaclava before riding out into the unusually cold spring air. I didn't need it, so I went off without it, only to regret doing so when I was a block away from the house. It wasn't simply because I was a bit cold. It was something deeper, more substantial. There was a little something in the early morning air. It was sereno. But rather than being terrified by it, it made me happy, because despite the fact that I now live so far from Colombia, sereno is apparently still all around me, an invisible reminder of home. So I rode on, making sure to breathe in deeply along the way, thus remembering my childhood in Colombia with every breath.

But may god help me if my mother ever finds out.

_______________________________________________________________

Marginalia

4-72—Colombia, the team that brought about riders like Nairo Quintana, Darwin Atapuma, Esteban Chaves, Sergio Henao and Fabio Duarte is set to apply for a Pro Continental license this year, and hopes to secure three year's worth of sponsorship from the private sector to secure its future.