BOGOTA, Colombia- The eleven dollar pre-pay taxi from the airport brought my wife, two year old daughter, and I into the heart of old Bogota’s old town. It was a little past 11PM on a Wednesday night. The streets were deserted, dark. What wasn’t torn up in construction projects looked to be in need of such ambition. It was clear that Bogota was a city in transition from the start, but, at current rendering, the rubble of the jackhammered streets and naked embryos of skyscrapers were no match for the rubble of the decrepit buildings that stood at their eaves. Was Bogota falling down or being built up? The dim orange glow of sulfur street lights rolled back the covers of the cadaver that I was riding into, a scene not unlike a leper beggar rolling up a pant leg to show you his pussing and infected wounds.
I thought Guayaquil.
My wife thought Managua.
Not the comparisons you want to make while entering a city for the first time.
“Seguro?” the taxi driver asked harshly while flashing a glace at his charge lined up in the back seat.
Am I sure???
I suppose I was, though I was not sure why the driver would care to assess this. I answered in the affirmative.
“Seguro!?!” the driver questioned more intensely a second time.
In a rush of huff he flung his left arm back through the lee space between his seat and the door and deftly locked my door.
“Seguro,” he repeated with a quick smile in the rear view mirror.
I then noticed what the warning was for. A rag covered street urchin manifested himself from the camouflage of decrepit building and was making fast for the cab as we sat at a red light. Though he walked right by and stuck his arm through the open window of a less suspecting vehicle that was stopped to our right.
The old and crumbling hag of a city refined itself down to a crumbling hag of a hotel. It was truly not bad when global standards are taken into account — it was old and busted up, but it was clean and the staff friendly. This hotel also had the distinction of being the cheapest in town.
I laid down to bed excited, my wife laid down in borderline misery. The kid crashed.
I was back in South America, the continent where I first began my international travels eleven years ago. This was where it all began. For three years I bounced back and forth between South America and the United States. I learned the archaeology trade in Ecuador, finagled myself into professional work in Buffalo, and found myself — a 19 year old chump with less university credits than fingers — employed in a professional field where a bachelors in anthropology, or even a masters degree in archaeology is a standard requirement. I also found myself with the means to make money — good money — on the road. Money that I could save up from three or four months of working across my home country then have the means to spend the rest of the year in South America.
I again stood upon this massive southern continent — feet planted on its northernmost extremity looking south over some of the most massive mountain ranges, jungles, deserts, and plains this planet has up for offer on its round table. The falling down look of Bogota at night did not spark despair, fear, or disappointment, but something else: nostalgia. I was revisiting my roots as a traveler — long dormant stories and memories became manifest as I laid in bed staring at the dark ceiling.
At first light the kid was sitting up in bed. “Outside, Petra go outside,” she proclaimed. Hurriedly throwing on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, I gobbled up the kid, and, not even bothering to change her out of her Dora the Explorer pajamas, made for the streets. My surprise upon exiting the hotel was startling.
What was a dried up and crumbling mummy of a city in the night was unwrapped by daylight to revel the pumping of a very virile heart. The transition between my first and second impression of Bogota knocked me flat. People were everywhere, talking on cellphones, sharply dressed, going to work, eating quick breakfasts at street stalls — life teemed over everywhere. Even the buildings that I mistook to be corpses in need of a proper burial in the night now shown themselves to be massive edifices to bygone eras of masonry mastery. As I approached Carrera 7, the thump thump of the city overtook me: Bogota was happening.
Petra squawked at some chickens that were tied up to a newspaper kiosk, called out to some suits with cellphone connected to their gourds. She was smiling: we had arrived, she was on the road again. I taught her how to say “Me gusta Colombia.” She wore her Dora pajamas well.
First impressions of places all too often deceive. Some places show themselves right off to be pots of gold at the end of rainbows, just to turn out to be full of slag under their shiny surfaces; while other places need to be unmasked first to see the sparkling essence that lies within. Perhaps part of the art of travel is found in keeping first impressions of places at bay, in looking for isness rather than value judgements — at least until the sun rises.
“Me gusta Colombia tambien,” I replied to my starry eyed daughter.