Three months of doing practically nothing besides playing the guitar and drinking beers in San Francisco had to come to an end at some point, I suppose. So, here I am, on my first night bus in about 6 months heading from Bogota, the capital of Colombia, to a small town 10 hours closer to the Ecuadorean border, called Cali (emphasis on the -li in that, apparently). Apparently, Cali is known for it’s extremely enthusiastic salsa dancing scene. Seeing as San Francisco is more about brunch than dancing, I’m not sure how I’m going to keep up, but I’ll give it a go.
I left SFO on the last flight out on the day my visa expired, to Bogota via Fort Lauderdale, Florida. My last day in the States was a New Years Day mimosa picnic in Mission-Dolores park surrounded by lots of the people I’ve spent the last three months with. Then, Katherine and I went for my last California eggs Benedict (somewhat of a staple for me recently) before heading to the airport. The goodbye was long and teary, as expected, but the promise of some more adventuring makes up for at least a little bit of that. I’ll be back.
I boarded my flight armed with my brand new Lonely Planet guide and English-Spanish dictionary, ready to spend the next 10 hours dong what I should’ve been doing for the past three months, i.e. learning Spanish. I think I was asleep before we took off though. Now, 3 days in, I had no idea what a full immersion into Spanish this continent would be. Anywhere you go, you’re hard pushed to find an English speaker, even at a basic level. So the Spanish is coming fast. It’s an enjoyable, sometimes stressful, learning curve — particularly when trying to use public transport.
As soon as I arrived, the trouble started. At immigration, I was asked for an address in Colombia and an onward ticket. Two things I had no idea I’d be asked for. When I couldn’t produce either, I was taken to a back room for further questioning. There, I conversed with another customs officer via Google Translate, showed her one of the places that I possibly might stay in Bogota in the guidebook and showed her my ticket out of Brazil in 6 weeks time. After some deliberation, I was welcomed to Colombia.
By this time, the baggage carousels had stopped and there was no left baggage to be found. I went to the ‘Luggage Tracing’ desk where I was told that Jet Blue, my airline, dealt with their own left baggage and I’d have to go and find their office upstairs. After wandering unmarked corridors and navigating an elevator which only worked for people with key cards, I found their office. I knocked and a woman answered the door and said “Hola. Are you Jack? I’ve been waiting for you. Here’s your bag. Adios.”
Once I’d made it into the town and found a hostel, incidentally the one that immigration thought I’d be staying at, my first day in South America was spent aimlessly wandering the streets of La Candelaria, a small, colonial suburb of Bogota, the main tourist area. I don’t think I’ve come across a place that looked so much like I thought it would. Almost exactly like every Spanish pueblo (village) I’d been to, or seen in movies, but with more graffiti.
On day two, I was invited along with two guys from WA, Australia to visit a salt mine cathedral and a ‘Laguna’ up in the mountains which is said to be where the El Dorado myth began. We hopped in a taxi and the driver quickly asked us in broken in English where we were from. He was very impressed and started reeling of lists of band names from each of our countries. He then played us some music from his band, in which he plays guitar. Later, on the way back to Bogota, we listened to AC/DC full blast the entire way.
The salt cathedral in Zipaquira was very eery. Lots of crucifixes cut into the salt and rock with psychedelic colour changing lights. As we got deeper and deeper into the mine, the air got thinner and thinner, until we were out of breath from just a few steps. The climax was a huge cavernous room with a 10m tall crucifix cut into the rock, creepy chanting music playing and lots of people praying in Spanish. The whole cathedral was based upon the stations of the cross, each room getting slightly larger and with a different style crucifix and different colour lights. It was all very strange. Only Catholics, eh. Probably had to much communion wine at the parish meeting where they decided to build this thing.
Sadly, we spent a bit too long in the salt mine, and by the time we got to the Laguna, it was closed. The security guard told us it would be getting dark soon, which wasn’t really true. But the negotiation of us and a few other large groups of people who arrived at about the same time wouldn’t change his mind. I’ll post some images of it when I get the chance (it’s called Guatavita Laguna if you want to look it up) — it looked amazing, so we were very disappointed not to see it first hand.
In place of that, our driver took us to a nearby village. One that had been entirely rebuilt in the 60s when it had been destroyed by flooding. It was a beautiful little village on a lake that reminded me of some of the landscapes in New Zealand. Once we’d trekked down to the lake and taken some photos, we met our driver again for a cerveza before the drive home. The Aussies left that night for a flight down to Peru where they were booked in to do the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu, something I’ll be doing in the next few weeks.
Today, day 3, involved a couple of museums, one showcasing a huge number of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts and an art gallery dedicated to an artist called Botero who likes painting fat people. Look him up. I spent all day with my Spanish-English dictionary out and spent a lot of time looking up words I saw, and taking note of them for future reference. I’m determined to be at least okay at Spanish by the time I leave this continent. After the museums and a hearty Colombian lunch (consisting of beans, rice, avocado, ground beef, sausages and fried pork), I walked through town up to the cable car which would take me up to Monserrate, a church up on the mountain. The view was spectacular. I had no idea that Bogota was so vast until this point.
After some downtime back at the hostel, I set out with some instructions from the very helpful hostel owner on how to get to the bus terminal using public transport. I asked a police man for some help and he pointed me in the direction of the right bus. I got on and spoke to the driver and conductor explaining where I wanted to go using the words the hostel wonder had given me. After some confusion, we agreed that Ci! This was the right bus. So, I paid 1,450 Colombian Pesos (50p-ish) and claimed aboard.
I sat right at the front and kept speaking to the conductor. “Cuante tiempo a La Terminal?” and “Proximo?” Both of which were responded to in a flurry of Spanish which I had no understanding of but were followed by a smile so I assumed they were positive responses. After a while, a girl behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked where I wanted to go in broken English. When I answered she looked puzzled and started tapping on her phone. A moment later, I was on the phone to her boyfriend and he was explaining that I was on the right bus but I’d gone too far and that I should get off and take a taxi.
The best laid plans, eh?
I made to get off the bus and the girl told me she’d get off and help me. I protested but she wouldn’t listen. Next minute, were on the other side of the road hailing a cab, she’s offered me money to pay the 5000 peso fare back, which I obviously refused, and sent me on my way. I couldn’t believe someone would go so far out of their way to help a stupid gringo backpacker. I was shocked. I didn’t know how to thank her other than with a “mucho mucho gracias” and then I was gone.
It’s moments like that that make all this worthwhile. I’ve never done anything so stressful yet so rewarding as traveling in countries where you can’t speak the language. When I reached the bus terminal, which was only 5 minutes back on the road we were on, I was filled with excitement for the next 6 weeks and what’s in store for me.
Bring it on.