Colombia Redux: Bogotá and Out

Sigh: All warm things must come to end. Yes, with my flight to the States now only looming a few days away, the time has come to return to what I term the Big Bad B: Bogotá, that #4 city sizewise in South America. Although mileage varies on such statistical metropolitan areas, that's about where it figures, following Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, and Lima in probably as much administrative headache as political and human capital. This level of size is never appealing to me, no surprise, but far worse to my warmth-acclimated self is the cold that I know will come with the return to its altitude. It'll mean a return to skies of grey, fumes, an initial light-headedness from the air thinning, plus the unquestionable likelihood of significant wetness from above. I'm mentally prepared to hug myself for warmth over a few days.

First I have to make it there, though, and that'll require another four-plus hours aboard my most-est favorite of vehicles - the Colombian bus. S-igh. My shoulders round down, a corporal frown. Well, to the task at hand, then: I bid goodbyes to my friends at Casa Belle Epoque, then walk the dozen or so blocks to the big roundabout. The thinking is that I'll probably be road-bound in 'round 'bout five minutes, especially with said roundabout being both on the main route and in the biggest city between Colombia's Big Two giants of Bogotá and Medellín. But... make that again a vigorous not, and multiply that by two while at it. Waiting on the side of the road initially mostly engenders only inhaling fumes instead. One full bus after another rolls past, each with barely the glancing blow of a pause to allow the driver or purser to make the horizontal arm wave that signals "FULL!"

Such is the luck of leaving after a long weekend. Eventually, though, a local bus driver ambles over, quoting a couple different schedules. He convinces first some locals, then with their example my wary self, to buy a ticket for a sure thing. After having waited nearly forty-five minutes, we're all to happy to. Only immediately thereafter do we spy a Rapido Ochoa bus that pulls up moments after paying. Naturally it has a handful of vacant seats, and just as predictably the usual madness ensues of us numbnuts trying to get our money back to buy a ticket on the newcomer.

What follows is a drama that focuses on a discussion between the current driver and the guy we just bought tickets from. They only ever-so-barely make indications to acknowledge our existence in the bargaining going on, whispering where necessary to make sure we can't hear (I might be one of those pesky gringos who's learned espa&ntile;ol, especially as I'm crowding up against them with ears pricked). Ultimately I'm hustled along somewhere in this mix of conference, the usual drunk bum on the street confirming as much to me. "Quince mil!" he wags his finger at me, gesticulating to confirm that it should now cost 5000CP less than what I've just paid. No surprise there. Yet asking for my money will get me nowhere, just more of the usual, panicked hand-waving that insists I get aboard without too much fuss so the bus can get rolling again. These games are always about keeping things in motion, harassing the beleaguered customer to get with the program before losing out on the sure thing. So... like a typical gringo I oblige grudgingly, weighing the cost of arguing versus the amount involved - which is exactly what they've counted on. It's good to have home court advantage.

In any event I'm soon sitting on a seat, now mostly not feeling good about not having a ticket to show my passage. Just another bus ride in South America, in other words. To further that thought appropriately, we begin our first death climb back into the Andes, away from the depths of the Mighty Magdalena's cut. On we head toward the Eastern Cordillera, the range I like to call the right finger of the fading Andes (the left finger has Cali, the middle - unfairly - Medellín) in their northerly progress toward the Caribbean. Within minutes, also true to form, the expected violent movie starts up as the A/C is quickly cranked up to a freezing winter of all's discontent. One has to give the bus companies credit for knowing how to pacify a disgruntled clientele, numbing them on multiple fronts toward quiet servitude.

So begins the intense pleasure of watching Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan deal with a Colombian kidnapping (Proof Of Life, not exactly recommended) as I watch increasingly large cliffs begin to form outside the bus, usually to our right. As Mr. Crowe blows people away with improbable skill, I can only sigh in anticipation of all the blind curve passing undoubtedly to come - or its counterpart, those harrowing, fully unnecessary near-misses of head-on collisions that are inescapable for all mountain travel in Colombia. Foolishly, I sometimes press my nose to the window, just to determine if I can see any pavement between the side of the bus and the yawning abyss below. Naturally I can't, but at least I don't notice any upturned vehicles far below in the jungly foliage, either. That helps, actually.

A saving grace to all of this is the very same thing that caused my initial problems in catching the bus. Being the Tuesday after a Puente (the Colombian term for a three-day "bank holiday" weekend), the traffic is thick and absolutely serpentine in length. There's thus little hope of us getting either speed or the passing game underway. Moreover, it miraculously even seems that our driver has perished the thought completely: When the traffic clears a bit, other buses and tankers begin to pass US when possible. I'm just as astonished at this restraint as are the few passengers showing discontent with the driver's lack of oomph. I'm happy to note, though, that there are others like me, all sighing in relief at this rare respite from insanity on the roads.

As we near Bogot&accute;, passengers steadily begin to depart in what seem rather odd choices of spots. As the jams of the city come out to greet us, a passenger randomly stands up to suddenly jump out a few seconds later into the thick of it. Yelling for the driver to stop, the passenger'll exit the bus in a fluster to disappear into the sea of vehicles and smog in moments. Then, in the pause, a few traveling salespersons - almost invariably vendors of sweets and drinks, but sometimes the odd miracle cure - manage to hop onboard for short spells. This is our unhappy-if-brief compensation for an emptying bus, even if it now allows us an increasing choice of seats.

For all this anticipation and jostling, I don't really mind much: Pulling into the North Terminal, I'm just glad that it's all over. I've again survived a Colombian bus, and it's the last of the trip. I pat myself on the back only momentarily before hopping into a just-as-typically mad taxi. In exchanging one questionable public transport for another, it's time for my grand return to the Candelaria neighborhood more or less safe and sound... enough. And cold: Bogotá!

Safely ensconced in the hostel once more, once more I find that it's rather empty. Moreover, according to the gringo press available, what with City Paper warning of muggings and El Baluarte detailing some hostels that have been recently robbed wholesale, I know that Destino Nomada will re-welcome me with open arms. My previous experience there, meanwhile, counts for something far more tangible: a hot shower, the only one in the hostel, and found only in a bathroom somewhat hidden to the majority of the guests.

This time around, I only have the acquaintance of a Turkish girl to show for my brief time in the city. My new friend has just left everything behind in Turkey to forge a new life with a barely known Colombian boyfriend of hers from a previous trip - only to be dumped shortly after her re-arrival. Ouch. As for Walter, my trumpet fan? He's just gone off to return to Australia - and his wife! Isn't he like 20? When the hell did he get married and... again, where IS everybody?!? I'll soon find that only the bubbly manager, Clara, remembers me. Sniff. Still, she re-welcomes me with sufficient warm cheer to cure me of any more need for company for my last days, showing why a hostel is a hostel. It's that semblance of home, however minor in scale, that a hotel never quite touches on.

Meanwhile I'm only left with a frenzied hurrah of i's to dot and t's to cross in Bogotá. For example, I'll finally make it to the National Museum, a fine place - yet one which bores me enough to peruse it at an accelerated clip. I guess I've earned a jaded quality after some eight-months plus of playing tourist in the same country, after all. Many things by now no longer sport a freshness or newness now, so I find myself lacking that most key of ingredients for travel: curiosity. There are worse things, though - like working.

I will finally use the Millenium bus system a first number of times, however, even as that comes in a similar failure of sorts. My attempt to purchase a raised map of Colombia at the Geographic Institute only serves to inform me that such has gotten out of production. There'll be no substitute for its 3-d appeal in other maps, either, nothing showing the interesting geography of the country (resulting from its mountain formations) displayed to great effect. Instead I'll have much better luck in purchasing a number of those ubiquitous Colombian wristbands I like for tiny, colorful gifts, plus a funny t-shirt I've heard about that mocks the modern-day sellout of Che Guevara. The Homero Valdez t-shirt, my other target, is oddly nowhere to be found. More failure, I sniff.

Still, all isn't lost. My main mission was to locate some bona fide art, after all. Indeed, for over a year I've rued not purchasing more art from Pedro Ruiz after I saw his Gold exhibit in Cartagena. I know he's a Bogotano, however, even if I haven't a clue about where I can possibly find more of his stuff. Initially popping into the few obvious candidates of museums gets me nowhere, either - apparently his few things available for purchase came and went with his showings. Those had only visited a few towns in the first place, too. So I continue hunting about the internet, all the while soliciting advice from the staff at the hostel about how to go about this mission.

Finally I have a breakthrough. While reconnecting with my friend Julian from the year prior (coincidentally met alongside Luis in Manizales), a succession of phone calls leads me to a woman named Iris. Remnant links to her former gallery on the internet eventually nets me a telephone number and then direct contact. Within minutes of conversation, she invites me over to her home, mostly in surprise of this interest out of nowhere. She now is actually getting out of the business, but yes, she used to represent Ruiz and even the great Botero himself formerly, I'm informed. She muses that she might have something somewhere around her house.

In the process, and in going over the ensuing clusterfart of logistics, I find that she lives close to Julian and even Luis and Nadia's agency. The first will be a fortunate coincidence, the second less so: I won't again be able to meet up with my hosts from Honda after all. In any event, this new destination will take me to one of Bogotá's more interesting (and safe) neighborhoods, Chapinero. Over a heavy and delicious lunch with Julian, plus a couple more calls to firm up her address, Julian and I otherwise catch up before he needs to get back to work - something about personnel management for a multinational oil company I'll not fully understand - before the time has come to see if Ruiz's oro (gold) will finally be mine as well.

Not much later, I show up on Iris's front step to be shortly ushered in. Shortly thereafter, a prized book from the Oro show is sold to me, too, as Iris voices takes the opportunity to complain of being forgotten when her shepherded artists make it big. I clutch my new possession just a little more tightly, then, as she informs me that she'll only be doing Sotheby auctions in the future. Changing tacks, she laments that she no longer even feels safe in Bogotá, anyhow, insisting that the town has only changed for the worse even as the newspapers trumpet each capture of a guerrilla leader. Eventually things come to me thanking her for letting me purchase the book as she further assures me while I leave that she'll see if she has anything else lying around the house to possibly give me later.

Whew! I finally have my prize, one that's covetously loomed in the back of my mind for a year. Ruiz's paintings, representing a Colombia lost, captivate me again as much as they did at the exhibit. Each painting, one after the other, harkens a time gone - yet as presented from a canoe. I pore over the various scenes, each surrounded in gold as endemic to Colombia as a Gabo novel, a Botero sculpture, or a Toto la Momposina song. NOW, I feel, only NOW can I leave Colombia contentedly behind for a spell. This is the souvenir I've needed to remind me of the so many things I love about Colombia - the waterways, the jungle, the architecture, a mango.

All that's left in the lurch of this satiated desire is figuring out how to make my way back to the Candelaria. I first rather confusedly head in the wrong direction of Bogotá's main drag - Carrera 7 - at rush hour. But nothing can put an ill wind into my sails now. Jumping from bus to bus, I eventually make my way out back onto the streets to get walking the zigzaggedy maze necessary to find myself back at the hostel. The odyssey of fumes, flashing lights and squealed brakes I endure all pale in comparison to the elated feeling I have concerning my score. NOW I can leave.

The next morning I'm to be off. Of course, and as is so usual with me and having to wake up early, I'll wake on every hour until 4:30 a.m arrives. Then a taxi comes to take me through the empty streets of Bogotá as, on the road, I see that 26th Avenue is still a mess after more than four months. Then, on the radio news, I hear that a Rapido Ochoa bus has gone off a cliff with twenty-two dead and injured. The dollar is steadily losing ground to the Colombian peso, too. Hmm...

Next comes the uneventful flights back to the States, to terminate in Tampa for the day with a Robert Duvall/Bill Murray movie en route that I'll soon likely forget. I'll also learn of an explosion that happens at Miami Airport as I go by this day, something about a pump machine that delivered combustible to the gates, but that'll only prove a hiccup if a big one timewise at that. Changing my flight to Orlando Airport, instead of spending a night in Miami, makes this mess easily surmountable. It's time to take a breath, finally, knowing that I'm indeed back in the U.S. - but already wondering when next I'll be flying back.

Some poor photos from the Gold exhibit by Pedro Ruiz (which oughta hold off the lawsuits, right?):

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