Around the World With a Vagabond

Welcome to Colombia December 21, 2009

Filed under: Welcome to Colombia — christynichols @ 5:15 am
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We arrived in a torrent of rain and thunder and crashing lightning. Our baggage was soaked, and the airport terminal was flooded to our ankles in rain water.  Bienvenedo gringos.

The three-legged flight from Los Angeles was not too bad. Other than a midnight departure time and sharing half of my middle seat with an obese, but sympathetic, woman, the flights were fairly smooth.  My stomach only dropped once as we took off from Ft. Lauderdale, and though the ocean view through the plastic windows flashed momentary terror, it was only momentary.  I was calm throughout the flights. The beers helped too.

I really should be able to say more about Bogota, but the truth is the hostel is lovely, and I mostly caged myself inside the vividly painted courtyards of an 18th Century Colonial house-turned-hostel for days. I’ve submitted myself to every hammock at least once.  It was a very peaceful, and lazy week.

It didn’t quite start off that way though.  Flashback to our soggy jeans and crowds of Spanish speakers all vying for the next taxi, Chris and I were finally were able to cut past customs, and out the door.

After a too-long conversation in bad Spanish with a taxi driver, we were able to sort out a ride to our hostel, Musicology in La Candelaria.   We’d heard mixed reviews about this area of Bogota. We’d heard it was decent, and tucked away in a university area.  We also had heard it was a dodgy part of town, infested with angry, raging criminals with a thirst for gringoes.  Only one way to find out.

The taxi ride was harrowing. We hadn’t slept in about 24 hours, and hadn’t eaten much, and the taxi drove as if in a high speed chase, except he seemed to be doing the chasing.  Lane lines meant nothing to him, nor did honking buses or speedy motorcycles.  The rain still fell on our windshield, potholes the size of Volkswaggens swallowed our wheels every few blocks, and armed militia men stood on dark corners of broken-brick streets. Our manic driver kept shouting that our destination address was “peligrosso! peligrosso!” and kept reaching into the back seat to stab Chris in the chest with a pretend knife he made out of his first two fingers.   Scared the crap out of us.

The neighborhood we drove through did little to ease my worries.  The streets were dark, narrow, and crumbling. Not in the charming and quaint way that so many of Europe’s streets are narrow and crumbling. These streets screamed of menace. Unkempt, criminal, malevolent dark streets graffitied over and guarded by homeless, putrid drunks slumping in corners.  Many of these corners were guarded with what looked like militia – sometimes 6 or 7 in counting, all with huge guns at the ready.  I was terrified.

After about a 30 min distressing drive, we arrived at Musicology – it was a haven after the other neighborhoods we had driven through.   Painted blue on the outside, with a music note hanging over the gated entrance, we were welcomed into a lush green Spanish courtyard.  The walls were brightly painted, and several hammocks hung between the beams.  We were lead to the “Reggae” room, and made to feel at home.

Finally comforted, we headed straight to the bar upstairs.  The barman was an English guy, probably early 40’s, who was from Hastings.  He looked like a criminal. Tats on his neck, arms, and legs, and face piercings.  He spent the next 45 minutes telling us every mugging story he knew. Local, of course. When Chris and I finally made our way to our hostel bed, I was a rack of nerves. Neither of us slept very well that first night.

Barman Jason turned out to be a decent bloke.  He had been working at the hostel for 2 months, and was set to move on, when he took in a poor stray black labrador. He tried to convince the hostel owner to take her in, and the owner only would as long as the barman stayed for one more month and trained the dog. So that is exactly what this “criminal” is doing.  In a week, he had the lab fixed, got her teeth done, and had started training her to behave herself.  Not a bad guy.

Our first day in Bogota was pretty awful.  After a restless night, I woke  in the morning  struck with the worst cramps I have had in years.  I took loads of Ibuprofin, but it didn’t help. Chris was starving, so after a lovely chat with the hostel owner, an Israeli named Inball, we wandered out into the cobble-stoned streets and up the hill towards a small kitchen serving hot soup.

The buildings along the street were so colorful! Pinks and reds and blues, high balconies with plants and laundry overhanging from lines out of windows.  But despite the colors and the quaintness of the streets, it was still very run-down.  The buildings didn’t seem to have much upkeep, cracked and pitted with holes as they were. Turning any one corner meant entering a bad part of town, with homeless sleeping in the streets, and military men on guard.

Chris and I headed up the hill to this small restaurant with just a couple picnic tables inside. For $2, you could get a whole plate of chicken, beans, rice, plantains, a bowl of soup, salad, and fresh squeezed fruit juice!

Chris woofed his down, but I was still feeling awful.  I really wanted to eat the food, but I had the shakes so bad.  I felt sick and couldn’t eat.  I sat facing the door, watching as burros laden with heavy satchels walked by.  I just couldn’t appreciate anything.   I asked for the baño, and the small Colombian woman walked me to the shop next door.

The shop next door had very little room, perhaps only for a customer or two.  The woman rolled away an ice-cream cooler that revealed a small door.  She gestured towards the door, so I walked through and into the tiniest bathroom I have ever been in.  It was about as wide as the average bedroom closet, but only about half as long.  Even so, it still contained a toilet, a small sink, and a urinal, almost all on top of each other. The door did not reach all the way from ceiling to floor, so I partly felt I was still in the shop with the men working there, but whatever. My stomach hurt so bad, I didn’t care.  There was also no toilet paper, but nothing to do about that.

Anyway, got back to the restaurant, and just couldn’t hack it, so Chris lead me back to the hostel. I didn’t quite make it.  As he was trying to buzz us in, I started throwing up in the street. I hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours, so there wasn’t too much of a mess, but I couldn’t hold it back. I threw up all over the pretty blue paint on the wall of our hostel. We were buzzed in, and I threw up in the entryway, luckily into a trash bucket.  Chris walked me down the hall, and into our room, where I threw up again in the toilet.  It was awful.  I was shaking, had been sick, had diarrhea, and cramps – it was the worst I could remember feeling in a long time, and was exhausted. Chris tucked me into bed, and I tried to sleep away the pain.

Wasn’t too sure what hit me.  I hadn’t eaten anything for it to be food poisoning.  I had had a weekend in Vegas, a very long flight, lots of booze in between, and had just started the pill, so I accounted it all to hormones and physical dehydration and exhaustion.

Found out later it was altitude poisoning.   I guess it hits travelers frequently. Bogota sits pretty high at 2640 meters, and is the third highest major city in the world.

Whatever the cause, I felt so sick.  So between fearing we’d be victimized and feeling ill, it’d been a rough start to our travels.

Welcome to Colombia.