Colombia Redux: Back Into Bogotá

My living, breathing carcass can be said to be back in its rightful place after several months in the U.S. Yep, I'm back in Bogotá after a pair of uneventful flights, the first being Seattle-Miami - where I enjoyed five hours of selecting from a menu of neck-aches. Such are the courtesies of a redeye flight; I can't claim surprise. More worrisome are things like a planeload of Anglos looking to get their tan on in the Caribbean. This is something I confirm beyond doubt - they won't shut up about it. Talk about inauspicious beginnings...

It gets worse, too, as their airborne rite of passage is apparently best aided by copious amounts of liquor. Or so thinks the particularly loud, obnoxious, and increasingly drunk group hailing from Alaska (we're on Alaska Airlines, so fair enough on that score). They only begin to shut their yaps around neck-aches 17 and 18 or so, accompanied by a similar number of headaches on their account. Naturally, the petering out of their babbling is only replaced by a kid who emits one of the most extended - and impressive - temper tantrums I've ever heard. This erupted over the last half hour into Miami, to which I wonder... Am I having fun yet?

Flight #2, Miami-Bogotá, proves rather completely Latino, a respite. This comes as no surprise, of course, both considering the trajectory AND after spending a few hours of layover time in Miami International Airport. Immediately after landing, for instance, I virtually only hear Spanish everywhere. Then, by the time I get to Terminal D, that's about ALL I hear. It almost feels necessary to verbally camouflage myself - I'm probably easily identifiable in my slobby attire as gringus americanus - by jabbering something akin to Si, soy latino - no me te pareces asi?

Maybe not. Still, I can't help but think that from here on out begins the sticking out - even if such self-consciousness isn't completely fair, since I both speak Spanish AND haven't said a word. Moreover, I can easily pass for Argentine or Chilean without a second glance. "Che...." is all I have to say to start any sentence. This out-of-place feeling regardless only becomes slightly more exacerbated as I near my gate for the flight to Colombia. Hmm. The look of the folks about me HAS rather indeed grown homogenous, something concretely reenforced as I take in the impressive display of the "weaker" sex about me. Oh yeah - that!

Yes, these are Colombianas, no doubt about it - I've just forgotten about their telltale signs by their relative absence in my region of Gringoland. Now, however, I remember ALL about them as an impressive display of boob and butt jobs, each of inordinate size and/or improbably gravity-defying shapes, fills my foreground. In the most egregious examples, I would venture to believe that one could safely set down a loaded dinner plate - or even a place setting for two - on any of the more prodigious samples of what I term ledge-butt. Good gravy: only an earthquake could knock anything off such a mesa!

As for the flight itself, it's nothing doing to cover the 3-1/2 hours to Bogotá. Calm skies and a smooth ride prevail... until we get to circling blindly in the clouds for something that feels nigh on forever. This we do immediately upon approaching the city, just as a storm similarly enters the airspace we hope to both traverse. Crud. This is discomforting, even if there is only minimal turbulence. There's just something awfully unnerving when wondering how many other planes are out there in the cloud soup - any of which that could be nearby and anxious to touch wing tips with us - doing the same thing. Perhaps it's thus unsurprising that one can hear a pin drop as the motors drone away and we anxiously await our drop from these opaque, nether regions to an eventual touchdown. This comes only at the end of a particularly long, gray, and wet tunnel - and an interminable half hour or more has passed.

And then we're there. Whew. Popping through the airport, fortunately, is a breeze. So is getting a taxi back to La Candelaria. It unquestionably helps to be on a second go-round, no time need to think things through. Having been here only six months ago, moreover, I feel immediately comfortable lapsing back into Spanish. Como estoy? Muy bien, gracias!

Then again, given the loquacious taxi driver that gets me to my hostel, I haven't much of a choice but to get into the swing of things: He has things to say! In an instantly intense conversation, we quickly cover the new president Santos (thumbs up), the old one Uribe (thumbs down), traffic in Bogotá (hah! - thumbs down through the floorboards!), AND the unending saga of 26th Ave's construction (a BIG thumbs down, with shoulder shrug of despair). Apparently this latter fiasco (with its well-reported corruption and delays) is still going as strong as ever, with no end in sight as in the previous year. The increasingly evident infrastructure looks impressive, anyway - I decide not to mention this.

Repeatedly, too, my new friend also wants to know whether I would kindly get a few folks together. See, we could hire him to go somewhere, ANYwhere really, far-r-r-r outside of the city. Not that we are (supposedly) such good friends and all (sigh - MY thumbs down on such assumptions after a mere thirty minutes), how can I pass up such a personalized service? To illustrate, he emphatically declares that he has no problem, for example, with driving a group several hours away - like to Villa de Leyva or even San Gil (another six to nine, give or take). I'll bet he doesn't. No, some things don't change at all, especially as I graphically imagine a meter rolling toward infinity as this very driver drinks shot after shot of aguardiente to the side of a road, standing by his inert taxi as we do whatever it is my potential cohort and I are supposed to be doing on such a grand outing. Nah.

Meanwhile, with the ride over with and overtures kindly thwarted, I decide on a different hostel than the last time to shake things up. I thankfully soon affirm that I've chosen well (enough so to confidently plug Destino Nomada here). I find myself quickly and happily ensconced in this newish little palace that many hostels promise to be - and rarely are. I immediately take to befriending staff members and fellow travelers alike - if only a bit at the arm's length prudently necessary - as I decide just how to get this trip rolling. I don't plan to stay in Bogotá long, after all, only the minimum necessary to buy a ticket to the Amazon River ASAP. In fact, I should just leave within a few days - there's nothing particularly new in Bogotá for me to explore.

In contrast, Leticia (on the Amazon River) will be new terrain to check out. Specifically this is true if not generally so - I've done a couple of Amazon Basin jungle trips before. But this time the idea is for a longer haul, and on the big river itself to boot. Figuring equally into this is something akin to unfinished business: Leticia was the part of last year's trip that got nixed right about when my vertebrae decided to slip itself into a painfully compromising disrepair. At only some point in time in Leticia will I figure out what the rest of the trip will be.

Meanwhile, at least in theory, a simultaneous plan to this entire Colombia trip is to work on music while doing the usual reading like a madman as the travels progress. Logistically I know that I'd better at least accomplish the latter: My bag weighed a whopping 47lbs (~23kg) at takeoff. Hell, my book load might've been the very culprit during our landing odyssey, as our pilot waited for a longer runway to be available or perhaps even built. I'll never know, but I do vow that the mochila will register half its current weight upon leaving. And that's to be true even as I intend to return with my portable chair(!), music stand(!!), and 200+ double-sided music scores. It'll have to be the books and who knows - underwear? - that'll have to go. I'll straightaway begin my reading and, well, Colombia IS a warm country. Priorities.

From the look of things street-side, meanwhile, I like what I see upon my first re-walkabout of the city. Most impressive is that it appears that a lot of the grafiti from the year previous has been replaced... with equally high-quality stuff, and in similar quantity. This isn't being facetious, either - Bogotá's street art still ranks as the best ever in my travels. Thus do I engage in a vigorous grafiti hunt forthwith, wandering throughout the haunts of the colonial-era Candelaria. As for the smell of diesel, the soot in the air, the honking horns, and the general dirt-to-filth ratio on the ground? Well... one just had to focus on, uh, accentuating the positive.

By the time I've completed this initial stroll, I note that - at least emotionally - it's taking no time to resettle into Bogotá. I quickly decided to up this Bogotá ante to a five night tasting. Why rush travel - like ever? It doesn't hurt, either, that the Spanish-yapping immersion part is already well underway with the other guests at my lodgings.

It isn't that speaking the ol' Castillian is a necessity, by any means - most other tourists seemingly speak English at a minimum - but this is a program with which I'm in happy agreement. That these Español-tinged conversations seem to be exclusively with attractive women is not an unhappy bonus, either. Am I really the only guy around? Well, not for long I'm not, but in the lull I enjoy the company of these other tourists from Switzerland, Argentina, and South Korea. As per the usual, we'll all be leaving Bogotá and the hostel in different directions shortly.

Beyond language, meanwhile, there are OTHER things that I know I'll be re-familiarizing myself with straightaway. For example, there's still that little bin next to the toilet for all things "foreign" to its capacity and, shall we say, its "will"? Yes, this time-tested blockage-evasion system is unfortunately as in effect as ever because the sewage system - as is the case in many places in Latin America - just isn't that strong. It's best to just not think about it, thankfully since it's not necessarily as bad as it sounds (or is practiced).

On the other end of things - literally - I know that I'll have to once again begin repeatedly searching for a good coffee. This is still true as before, however odd the case seems to be in Colombia of all places, the land that grows the best coffee beans. Fortunately this is a reality that's steadily - albeit slowly - changing. In Bogotá, in any event, this is no problem. With prior experience, my feet already know where to go - and they'll do just that starting on Day One.

A cup of the good stuff has gone up a bit in price since my last trip, however. The steadily falling purchase power of the U.S. dollar of late is beyond getting old! Crud. Although I should rather make that only a MINOR crud: It's hard to complain about an cafe americano going for $1.40, nor "suffering" the rental of a bunk at $11/night in one of the most appealing colonial districts in all of Latin America. As Colombia's tourism continues to grow as it already is drastically doing, I know that these prices will skyrocket right with it.

Until then, it's not like the Candelaria area is all that necessarily safe for the interim. Illustrating that aspect quite visibly are the vast number of armed patrols on many of the blocks in the Candelaria's core area. This deployed manpower comes in addition to the tourist police forces; A number of times each day, I see pairs of military troops in full camouflage gear (complete with semi-automatics in hand) on patrol. Thus I can't be shocked when my trumpet case is always searched - if rather pathetically - each time I go on the sidewalks near the palace and congress buildings.

It doesn't help that us silly-looking gringos are said to all look alike, easy targets for robberies when the difference between Colombia's economy versus those of the U.S., Europe, and Down Under is still pronounced. Contrasting with the evidence of the previous year's trip, however, I DO take note of a group of elderly Japanese ladies at a coffee shop, buying souvenirs. Now certainly THESE ladies are not stereotypical risk takers... but here they are on the mean streets of Colombia. I don't remember seeing any such folks a year prior. So is this progress, or just good public relations?, I wonder, a theme of questioning security (false or otherwise) that'll recur throughout my trip.

Not that anything noticeable has changed with the Colombian people in six months, of course. They still seem rather non-plussed by the growing number of tourists, especially true in the capital. They're still quite friendly, perhaps the most so in Latin America, I reconfirm to myself. And they still dress better than ragamuffins such as myself - although that doesn't take much beyond minimal laundering. Yes, these are still the same helpful, social folks by and large that I enjoyed the first time around, always good for a conversation running from music to politics - and with equal fervor, whatever the subject.

More to the my tasks at hand, on short order I find myself setting out to find where I can practice my horn and read. For the one - reading spots - there's never a problem, not with plenty of treed patios to escape within where I can read the live long day. Particularly agreeable are the random courtyards in ancient colonial buildings, at times left oddly abandoned or only marginally staffed by attendants too uninterested to mind a gringo with a book. They work well when not in my traditional outlet of cafes, never allowing for coincidence in providing comfy chairs and the coffee I find so conducive to reading.

The imposition of sound that comes with trumpet playing makes for a tougher task, however. And that's true even with the mutes I use to avoid anyone having to bear with my scales and lip trills on a daily basis: I'm sure no one wants to hear such heartwarming warbles as ah... ee... ah... ee.. ah.. ee.. ah.. ee.. ah. ee. ah. ee. aheeaheeaheeeeeee aieeeeeeeeee! One can imagine all the rats and spiders soon to be high-tailing it out of any building in which I spurt out such blasts. But even with the mutes in, it's not music. Some find such practice calming, others annoying. Where to practice such stuff is always a concern.

As for the music - when I play actual tunes - THAT'S never much of a problem, certainly not in Colombia or any other Latin American country. Music is more than a lingua franca in these parts. Fortunately, for just this cultural exchange exercise I have a venue in mind: The Museum of the 19th Century. I'm hoping that the pianist from the previous year will still be around, again finding us playing some tunes in that gorgeous, enclosed patio to our mutual delight.

Unfortunately he isn't around - out on vacation, how dare he! - so I instead manage to escape into the small auditorium further within, unnoticed. I'm determined to play a number of tunes outside of (the otherwise friendly confines of) the hostel's freezing commons area. Promisingly, I play mostly unheard at first in this redoubt, what with a competing vacuum cleaner without and my silencer mute within. But some twenty minutes later, when the former stops and the latter is taken out, this'll change. This is made obvious if only by the various security guards who soon begin entering and nodding their heads... to each return with a woman. 'Tis all the better to show this wacky trumpet player off to make points with the ladies, apparently. And, after asking questions about the horn in general and the harmon mute specifically with me along, they later parrot our initial conversations verbatim when their fairer audience is brought to bear.

Logistics, meanwhile, confirm the wisdom of my overall short stay in Bogotá. Of primary concern, I know that renting a room won't be that cheap for the kind of space I like for practicing. Moreover, the general cold and unhealthy air of this BIG (#4 in South America) city is another seemingly inescapable negative, particularly true in the Candelaria - where almost all of the otherwise-charming old buildings offer little or no heat. Even worse, their single-pane windows are as often as not open to the outside. Brrr. And this isn't just true of the hostels but also uniformly the case in the cafes, museums - everywhere, actually. As this translates too often to cold, even frigid environs, I too often find myself layering up as if I were still in the growing winter (such as it mildly is) in Seattle. No, I'm looking forward to the heat of the Amazon - and the sooner the better.

Fortunately, five days proves sufficient to take advantage of sampling Bogotá's excellent selection of restaurants. In addition to music, FOOD makes the country - as every tourist knows. In the Candelaria, thankfully, it's never hard to find new culinary temptations while ambling through the extensive colonial architecture. Ajiaco soup, simple huevos pericos, tamales, plus homemade aji to spice it all up, make for familiar and happy things to drop into my gullet. I know, too, that I won't be able to count on such fare in the more remote places I soon hope to be heading to.

So I repeatedly imbibe the stunning array of fresh fruit juices that are found por todos lados, just as one would expect in the country's largest city. I only have to take pains to insist that 1) milk is REALLY not a necessary addition and 2) neither is quite the quantity of sugar that'll get dumped in if nothing is said beforehand. Some sugar IS needed for the more acidic fruit-gems known as lulo, maracuja, and guanabana (not to mention guayaba/guava), but within reason. Properly requested, then, I three-cheer Colombia's amazing fruit juices time and again.

As for my reading, that gets off to a roaring start. I quickly have a few tomes going at the same time, a new tack for me. One book - Mark Twain's On The Damned Human Race - is a collection of essays speaking to the dark side of man. Impressively, they ring as true in 2010 as 100 years previously - which helps explain why I've become ever more a Twain fan in recent years. These days I find myself eagerly awaiting his upcoming autobiography and unpublished writings (which this book likely preview in bombast). Considered too outspoken for his time, some pieces have been willed to wait 100 years after his death. The time has finally come for them to see the light of day; Surely one can only admire a man who was critiquing water-boarding in the Philippines 90 years prior to the horrors at Abu Gharib and Guantanamo. His opinions on racism and religion are just as strident.

Similarly I'm ever charmed by the quality and variety of The New Yorker magazines I have with me. This is nothing new regarding their quality, certainly, but I've brought the last five with me to happily gobble up and catch me up to date - only to soon fall months behind as the trip progresses. But that isn't all bad: one of the things I invariably look most forward to when I return stateside is the pile of New Yorkers waiting for me in my accumulated mail.

Beyond Twain, I plunge also into a pair of Jack London's tales from the frozen north, White Fang and The Call Of The Wild. These seem the perfect accompaniment for an upcoming stay on a muddy, sweltering river, I figure. I haven't read any of his stuff since I was young, but a recent rereading of his short story To Build A Fire has rekindled an urge to give him another peek (however incongruous the locale). I start in on Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, too, but to that tome I immediately wonder if I'll stick it through. It strikes me as dated, if only in its conversant tone lodged firmly in the 60s and 70s. Time will tell if the philosophy overwhelms the groovy, far out fare.

Books and trumpet firmly in hand now, Leticia isn't to wait any longer for me. I'm now ready for the sweating, sweltering heat, that first refuge to hole up in. Importantly, I know that I won't have to muck yet with the detail of getting a renewal stamp there. Prior to the trip, I've been finding myself wondering if said stamp(s) is/are going to be a factor forcing a premature-feeling departure from the region. But back when I spoke to the immigration officer at the airport, begging a 90-day stamp instead of the typical 60-day one, he (somewhat surprisingly) obliged. Meanwhile I only have three months of malaria pills - it's THAT which will effectively make for a date in the stamp's stead.

Now with my flight quickly approaching, I reflect repeatedly on what I know about Leticia: not much. But I do hope to see some pink river dolphins, soon vowing that YES!, I WILL do so! And I won't even harpoon or eat the (probably thankless) beasts, either - unless I hear that they taste good with either curry or ketchup. Or mustard, maybe wasabi. I'll also ponder doing some kind of jungle tour, likely also visiting the indigenous village of Puerto Nariño some 75 miles upriver. Ideas are congealing, coalescing.

All of the above I'll likely do on the front end, what with the sure tourist onslaught ramping up in mid-December to push me along. Then I can lay lower to practice, practice, practice - and maybe play some tunes on the street. Will I find some like-minded musicians, willing to play either Latin (Cuban) tunes or jazz in Leticia? Well... it looks like the knowing will be in the going.

Some more examples of that glorious colonial architecture, a la Bogotá:

Some more examples of that intriguing grafiti, a la Bogotá:

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