Monday, January 14, 2008

A globe-trotting renaissance man

Raised in Houston, Texan now at home in Colombia

GUASCA, COLOMBIA — In the 1930s, when there was nothing to eat in his family's one-room house on South Main in Houston, Richard Morgan Stewart said his father would rustle-up dinner by catching rabbits and armadillos with his bare hands.

Stewart, 69, has come a long way — both geographically and financially — since those penny-pinching post-Depression days.

A globe-trotting renaissance man, Stewart tells how he worked at a gold mine in Costa Rica, lived with Buddhist monks in Thailand and punched the clock for CIA-run Air America in Laos. But for the past 36 years, he's made a home and a name for himself in Colombia, where he teaches English to high-powered executives, writes books, and runs a cozy 14-room country inn.

Called Cafe la Huerta, or The Garden Cafe, Stewart's bed-and-breakfast is named for his green-thumb parents.

The late George and Mary Stewart pulled their family out of poverty, taught master gardening courses in Houston, and became local celebrities. A 1988 Houston Chronicle story dubbed them "Houston gardening's royal couple."

"My parents would stop cars and give away baskets of tomatoes," the Houston-born Stewart said over a lunch of inch-thick steaks and cornbread made from his mother's recipe. "I always had the idea of providing hospitality, like my parents did on South Main Street."

Nestled amid cow pastures and potato fields near the mountaintop lake that inspired the legend of El Dorado, Cafe la Huerta is a collection of colonial-style rooms, a cozy bar where the poems of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges are painted on the walls, and a restaurant where the cooks bake biscuits in a wood-burning oven.

Stewart often entertains guests at the 120-year-old German piano in the dining room.

That restless feeling

Cafe la Huerta "is a place to spend a peaceful day in the countryside, to ride horses, to take a siesta next to the chimney or to enjoy a meal inspired by the concept of 'slow food,' " said a recent review in a Colombian travel magazine. "You leave feeling rejuvenated."

Growing up in Houston, however, Stewart felt restless.

His neighbors were the sons and daughters of oil-company executives who received Cadillacs and gold watches for their birthdays, but Stewart had little desire to get rich. Instead, he studied philosophy and literature at North Texas State University. He played guitar in a country-western band called the Poka Dots, which sometimes performed on the same bill as an aspiring singer named Kenny Rogers.

At one point, Stewart tried to enlist in the Army and figured he'd have a better chance if he put on a macho face. But, he recalled, recruiters took a pass after he demanded, "Give me a machine gun so I can kill every SOB enemy of my country."

In the end, Stewart decided the most patriotic thing he could do was to see the world.

Traveling the world

He boarded a ship to Australia where, over the next five years, he worked as a cook, a newspaper photographer and as the dormitory master at a Scottish boarding school. Invited into a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, Stewart stayed for eight months, teaching the monks English and discovering a natural aptitude for language instruction.

After a chance meeting with a mysterious American in a bar in Laos in 1968, Stewart recounted that he was hired on for $150 a day as a secretary for Air America, the CIA-run cargo airline in Southeast Asia. But he grew bored with the job and returned to Houston for a few weeks before setting off for Latin America.

"I'm proud of my origins," Stewart said. But the wandering life "seemed more interesting than becoming an investment banker in Dallas and trading in my car every two years until I died."

Work was no problem

He reached Colombia on July 28, 1971, and immediately felt at home. He had just $5 in his pocket but found a job on his first day in the country teaching high school English. Soon, he was earning a comfortable living by offering five-day crash courses in English to Colombian executives.

These days, most Americans who settle south of the border choose Mexico, Costa Rica or Panama and avoid war-ravaged Colombia. But Stewart arrived before Pablo Escobar and Marxist guerrillas for a time turned large swaths of this Andean nation into virtual no-go zones.

"I don't know any bad Colombians," Stewart said. "And it's the only country I've been to where Americans are uniformly welcomed."

Becoming a Colombian

Rather than living among other foreigners and attempting to forge an American lifestyle, Stewart went native. He married a Bogota woman, raised five children, became an expert on the country's history, and even gave up his American passport to be sworn-in as a Colombian citizen.

He wrote a book about Augusto Rivera, a Colombian painter, and has written the first 200 pages of a historical novel about South American liberator Simon Bolivar.

"Richard is more Colombian than many Colombians," said Piedad Atuesta, an accountant, who said she learned more by taking his five-day English course than in three months of studying the language at Cambridge University.

Cafe la Huerta came together one room at a time, "like Tinker Toys or Lego blocks," Stewart said.

He bought the property 20 miles northeast of Bogota in the 1980s. Whenever a colonial-era building was torn down in Bogota, Stewart would cart off the doors and windows to give his spread an Old World touch.

His wife, Patricia Puga, takes care of many of the day-to-day hotel chores while Stewart teaches English in an office filled with leather sofas and books by Albert Camus, Joseph Conrad and Raymond Carver.

A family business

Operating mainly on weekends, the inn has never made much money. But Stewart plans to turn it into a profitable business by adding more rooms as well as a meeting area for conventions. His 22-year-old son, David, who is studying hotel management at the University of Houston, plans to take over Cafe la Huerta when his parents retire.

Until then, Stewart says he still gets a kick providing Texas-style hospitality to Colombians. And with that, he sits down at the dining room piano and breaks into a familiar tune:

I've lived a life that's full

I've traveled each and ev'ry highway

And more, much more than this

I did it my way.

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