On (not falling in) love at first sight. (or, why does everyone hate on Bogota?)
It wasn’t love at first sight.
Of course, it rarely is.
I arrived in Bogota on a Sunday afternoon, after an 8-hour bus ride from San Gil, and opted for a too-expensive taxi into town. Pointing to one of the recommended hostels in my Lonely Planet, I told the taxi driver, “Aqui.” On the way, as we drove through the city, he reached back and locked my door and pointed to the other side for me to lock that one too. Watching out the window everything seemed slightly deserted, slightly dreary.
When we arrived at the address in my guidebook, down one of those tiny blocks that should never have been two-ways, the hostel I had wanted wasn’t there. There was a hostel at the address, it just wasn’t called the same name — one of the perils, I suppose, of traveling with a three-year-old guidebook, things change. My driver asked another driver who managed to squeeze next to us where the hostel I had been looking for was and he pointed us in another direction. But, remembering that my book listed two properties with that same name — the other one much more expensive — I decided it would be fine to stay put. So I said “este bin,” to my driver “aqui es bueno,” paid him, gathered my bags, and rang the bell.
It was a fine hostel, big, nice beds, not terribly expensive. Few people seemed to be around but that was OK, I was still in an anti-social funk. But I was hungry, as I tend to neglect eating on days spent on buses, so I decided to take a walk, find an early dinner.
I was just a block from Eje Ambiental — a long walking street lined with pools, fountains, and trees — so I thought it would be a good place to find something. But the street was devoid of people, pallid, strewn with graffiti, seemingly on the verge of rain, deserted. And cold. A marked difference from Cartagena. And nothing was open. Nothing.
I started to wonder if people lived there. Came there.
I hoped that it was merely a byproduct of being a Sunday afternoon and not just the way the city was. Because while so many people had told me they loved Colombia, equally as many said they hated Bogota.
And so I thought I would too. And things weren’t looking promising.
Finally, after turning onto a busy street, I found a fast foodish restaurant — Kokoriko — which I’d later find out was a Colombian chain. There were a lot of people inside though. And it was open. Two good qualities. And, at that moment, the only ones that mattered.
I stood at a counter, perusing the menu, but the woman woman working there somehow explained that I could take a seat and order if I didn’t want takeaway. And so I sat down and a man came to my table and, in English, said that I could ask him anything if I didn’t understand the menu. But the menu had photos next to every item and if there is any Spanish I understand it’s food lingo. He was sweet though, and I think, really, he wanted to practice his English. I ordered a pechuga of chicken and scarfed it down.
After I ate I headed back to my hostel, exhausted from my 8 hour bus ride, from the dramamine I’d taken beforehand. All I wanted to do was curl up under a blanket and watch a movie.
Shortly after loading Love Actually onto the Macbook (and can you believe that I’d never before seen Love Actually?) the guy in the bunk across from me came into the room. He kept talking and each time I had to press pause, remove my earphones, and mutter “huh?”
“Como estas?” he asked, then said something in Spanish I didn’t understand. “Loco tarde? “he asked and though I understood the words I couldn’t quite put together that he was referring to the fact that I was in bed so early. “Que hora es?” he asked.
It wasn’t love at first sight.
Of course, it rarely is.
The next morning I felt a little out of place in my hostel room. The guy from across from me was talking to another guy, all in Spanish. I just can’t quite grasp the language. I want to speak Spanish. I do. But it’s overwhelming. Because my hearing is so bad I often have trouble understanding people in English. Because I don’t feel confident in the language so I shy away from speaking. Because it was easy enough to get by without it in Central America. Because the less I use it the more I forget.
Luckily one of the guys made an attempt to say something to me in Spanish. And when I stood there like a a deer in headlights he tried again in English.
We talked a little, they made fun of me for sleeping so late (for the record, I woke up at 9am, which is totally not late) and I didn’t feel so intimidated. The guy I had met the night before, Poli, was from Argentina. The new guy, Javier, from Venezuela. I ended up spending most of the day with the Venezuelan: learning the history of Colombian money at the coin museum, perusing Botero’s voluptuous paintings, learning history at Bolivar Square.
The day was nice. It was sunny out, except for a bit of rain in the morning where we ducked into a coffee shop for a cafe con leche. And there were people, everywhere. Everything that day was so much different than the day before. Everything felt alive. Though I still wasn’t convinced that Bogota was a place I loved, it definitely wasn’t a place I hated.
That night, in the hostel, my Spanish-speaking roommates, a German guy, and I all sat around making sandwiches and playing a Venezuelan card game called BURRO. After everyone else went to bed I ended up talking to Poli, the Argentinian, about travel and life and everything. And while I certainly wasn’t in love, he was kind of cute and enjoyed our conversation and the fact that we already had a rapport where we could joke, make sarcastic observations.
In the morning the German and I went to Museo del Oro, the gold museum. I’m not terribly interested in gold but it does house the biggest collection of pre-Hispanic gold work in the world, and it’s one of those must sees in Bogata, one of those places you have to go because it’s meant to be amazing. One of those places you have to go to show that you’ve done something in the city. And it was a nice museum. Of course, I’m not one to retain facts but I can tell you that at one point people started training birds to talk so they could sacrifice them instead of humans because somehow they deemed that an acceptable substitution. (Note: don’t come to this blog for useful information.)
It was a nice museum though, and the collection was impressive. I spent most of the time admiring the nose jewelry and wondering if I could pull off a dangling gold shield hanging from my septum. (Answer: probably not.)
Later in the day, after the German left for a flight, me and the Argentinian and the Venezuelan wanted to go to one of the events for Bogota’s birthday — it was the city’s 475th and there was a massive celebration everywhere.
And so, we spent the afternoon at a concert featuring three local artists and an audience that I’m pretty sure consisted of every hipster in Bogota: purple hair, tight jeans, thick glasses, half shaved heads. Each band was amazing. And we danced. And we danced.
And my friends made me speak in Spanish. All night. I wasn’t allowed to say a word in English. Which was hard, because I couldn’t say half of what I wanted to. But nice, to have people around you who want you to improve, who want you to work on what you need to work on. And I will forever be grateful for them, and that day, for pushing me and inspiring me to want to get better, to want to speak in Spanish, something that five months in Central America failed to do, accomplished in one afternoon with strangers turned friends.
After a long afternoon watching the three bands perform, after dancing to every song, after speaking all in Spanish, we headed back to the hostel, through an amazing maze of people eating street food, biking, drinking, celebrating.
I was in love.
Once we reached the hostel, we had meant to take a bit of a rest. But soon after arriving, we could hear fireworks. Poli ran to the window but couldn’t see anything. Since Javier had already jumped into the shower, the two of us went outside together to watch for them.
Around the corner we could see them in the distance: fuegos artificiales in every color exploding in the sky.
We stood on the street and watched.
And then, somehow his arm was around me.
I never know with guys, sometimes, when they touch your arm or put their arm around you, whether it’s an “I like you” thing or a “cultural” thing. Like, maybe, in Argentina, it’s just normal to put their arm around someone. Because while he had brushed my arm throughout the day several times in conversation, while he had held onto my hand slightly longer than necessary after we’d danced at the concert, I’d also seen his touch Javier’s back in a similar fashion.
Maybe that’s just communication here in South America.
I wrapped my arm around him nonetheless.
After a few minutes we heard the familiar booms of the fireworks coming from the opposite direction and we shuffled down the block to see the other show, all the while his hand never left my back.
And, after a few more minutes of watching the purple and the pink and the red eruptions in the sky, he turned to me, and kissed me.
And, for who knows how long, for who knows how many passersby, we kissed.
Later in the night we all walked around the busy streets, celebrating. And we said goodbye to the Venezuelan, who had a flight back home late that night. And we wandered some more down graffiti-strewn streets, through little squares. And we returned back to an 8-bed dorm room we now had to ourselves.
The next day, we spent in Bogota together, admiring the street art, climbing Monserrate (OK, well we didn’t exactly do that together as him and a French dude were a lot faster than me and I told them to go ahead), making meals.
That night we left Bogota, onto Medellin. I hadn’t planned on getting to Medellin so early, because I fly out of there in September, but he was heading to the city’s flower festival and I wanted to go with (a decision I made before we ever kissed).
I wasn’t sure if I was ready to leave Bogota. It grew on me. Because sometimes a place, or a person, you’re not sure you’ll like turns out to surprise you.
Bogota was gritty and dirty but I saw it come alive.
Poli was too young, forced me to speak Spanish against my will, but I liked him.
He made fun of my lack of Spanish, of my inability to cook eggs, of the fact that I count on my fingers, that my face gets all wrinkly when I smile. I made fun of the fact that he’s from Argentina, probably the meat capital of the world, and doesn’t eat meat. That he eats pollen for breakfast. That he’s a pelotudo.
We left Bogota on a Thursday and spent the next four days together. Though, nothing else happened between us, I was still happy to have him there. (Semi-) jokingly I told him I liked traveling with him because he could do all of the Spanish speaking for us, and let me know what was going on. But I liked making meals with him in the hostel kitchen. I liked talking to him. I liked dancing our pathetic version of salsa with him. I liked having him around.
On Monday, in Medellin, I said goodbye as he headed out to buy a ticket and board a flight to Cartagena. I had already been and wanted to stay in Medellin for a bit longer, take more Spanish lessons on his inspiration. So we hugged goodbye at the metro station and said goodbye.
And I cried a little on my way to a new, more centrally located hostel.
But, an hour or so later, all checked in, going through photos on my laptop, I saw him, out of the corner of my eye, peeking around the corner. There was a problem with his credit card and he couldn’t get a flight until the next day.
And so, we had one last night together, one that was quiet being a rainy Monday night. As we walked back to the hostel I hugged him, and didn’t want to let go. And kissed him and didn’t want to stop. And every so often we’d break away, talk for a bit, laugh at something silly. Which is really the way it should be.
The next afternoon, he left. And I walked him to the metro, said goodbye again, and headed off to a Spanish lesson. I promised him that next time I see him, I’ll be fluent. And who knows if I will ever see him again. Who knows if I will ever be able to really speak Spanish. Who knows if I will ever get back to Bogota, see all the things I didn’t see on my too-short time there. Because life is full of surprises and, I suppose, you never know what will happen.