January 18th, 2018
For once in my life, I am on time, the last strokes of organizing my place taking place prior to leaving for the airport courtesy of a friend in an almost antic-climatic move. Seats are automatically assigned by AeroMexico in the unbelievably non-existent line. The arced lounge in Vancouver’s stunning international departures wing wraps gently around the outside of a bank of luxury goods shops, the facility unfailing in its tastefulness and artistry, in particular, the looming wood and aboriginal sculptures set in the fantastical landscapes.
I am looking forward to slumping in my seat in exhaustion, and even though the seat next to me is empty, the young Australian woman from Perth in the adjoining window seat far too bereft of personality to justify any conversation, the optimism at the outset of the trip quickly degenerating into raw primal fear as the plane shakes relentlessly with severe turbulence, one bout following the other, to the point that even when it finally dissipates, I am finally too shaken and in pain to be able to relax and allow my body to survive the remainder of the flight to Mexico City in any reasonable fashion.
It later occurs to me that the turbulence probably made sense, considering we were not heading due to south as I expected, rather, into the continental divide, which was always a bumpy place, but nonetheless, by the time we finally arrive in Mexico City, I am quite shaken and exhausted, in no shape for another flight.
I watch portions of movies, sprawling this way and that, but the cramping in my limbs and particularly stomach increasing as no position I can avail myself of allowing me to relax sufficiently. For a person who is 6’4”, flying is simply absolute hell. Sitting in the aisle, I would in theory be able to stretch one leg out in the aisle, except that there is a constant stream of doddering or obese passengers clambering their way to the washroom, even in the worst turbulence.
It always seems amazing to me how people consistently ignore instructions to remain seated during turbulence. And finally, still in the darkness of the early morning, we approach Mexico City, the vast sea of lights that seems to just go on and on a testimony to this incomparable urban sprawl.
But exhausted as I may be, the unique charms of the Mexicans quickly emerge to the fore, the easy approachability of the immigration official following the lengthy wait, the affectionate accommodation by the young men in the security lineup, and the hilarity of the female security staff, one women smelling her underarm in mock horror when I ask about the heavy chemical smell in evidence from the moment we disembark the flight from Vancouver, her coworkers looking at us quizzically as I burst out laughing.
The airport is somewhat incongruous, unassuming, unappealing in its organization and the services provided, populated by masses of those dark, stocky lumbering Mexicans that I vaguely remember from the north of the country, salt of the earth often wearing cowboy hats over their dark furrowed brows. A lack of elegance comes hand in hand with an exalted sincerity, despite my exhaustion a pleasure to behold as I slump in my seat and observe the crowds flowing by in the rudimentary AeroMexico facility.
The few restaurants are at capacity, and in no way capable of accommodating another soul. So I remain in my seat in the open-air waiting area, joining the lineup for the second leg to Bogota when the last individuals board.
The flight to Bogota is an entirely different affair, the plane half full, particularly the front of the vessel where I am seated. I am seated in a spacious exit row, and have loads of leg room to stretch out in, never mind having the entire row to myself, which means I can lie down a good part of the flight. But at this point, what should have offered an opportunity to recuperate only keeps me from feeling even more awful.
The skies below us are heavily clouded over, not a positive indication of what may be to come weatherwise to the south. Latin America is apparently experiencing a very rainy and cold summer, and it may impose a substantial damper on my trip. But then how could I have predicted this? In any case, cold and rainy in Colombia is not the same experience as cold and rainy in the Pacific Northwest.
The emergence of snow-capped peaks north of Medellin offers the first sighting of Colombia, but we still have some distance to continue prior to reaching the highlands of Bogota. The plane drops into the thick morass of clouds, the tufts of cotton batting becoming a sea of white that doesn’t abate as the plane gently rocks on its downward mission. And then finally, bucolic green pastures, with not much urban settlement in sight, the colours still bright despite the massive cloud cover above us.
What I had expected to be a relatively straightforward arrival process becomes anything but, given that I am rerouted several times in the immigration lineup, waiting ultimately for a single agent, the only one designated to process Canadians out of some 30 booths. So what is the deal with Canada, anyway? Apparently, Colombia singles out Canada to charge a hefty arrival fee because Canada does the same with Colombians, although something tells me that Canada would have abandoned the practise with the new federal Liberal government.
Finding an ATM on the lower level of the airport becomes a struggle, as the only ones apparent are immediately in front of a money change booth with hordes of people gathered in front, hardly the most private environment, never mind the fact that the first two machines don’t seem to work.
Then a soap opera arises in trying to find some place in the airport that is private enough, has tables, wifi and electrical outlets. I have to retrieve the information for the AirBnb place I am intended to be staying in, and message the owners that I am arriving. The complications involved in having to notify AirBnB owners of arrival definitely make the service a pain to use. Of course, not having a phone with local SIM card doesn’t help …
The charming young woman at the tourist information counter assures me that there is free wifi through the airport, although as I am later told, that is only in theory, as there are spots where wifi is found, but for the most part it is very spotty, if available at all. The coffee shop upstairs looks like a great place to hang out, has electrical plugs on the tables – but only private wifi connections, and none from the restaurant.
The woman in the tourist office is exceedingly helpful, a positive introduction to Colombia. Pointing to the map spread out on the counter, she describes the tourist attractions that may be visited in town, also recommending the degree of caution that may be necessary in the respective areas of town.
I find the Oma restaurant upstairs, a combination bakery and cafe, with a private wifi connection, spotty, but good enough to get a connection with the already turgid AirBnB site. The neighboring cafeteria area also has electrical plugs. And finally, after 1 1/2 hours of trolling through the airport will all my things, I am finally ready to take a taxi to the home.
And despite the panic I was experiencing about being carjacked, the airport offers secure and clearly signed taxis to anyone who can pay the nominal fare. And I am off, driving through the surprisingly respectful traffic eastward towards the city centre on one of the city’s east-west expressways, the traffic still not at its rush hour peak.
The driver excitedly speaks of the city and its attractions as we pass sprawling, low-profile government buildings, driving along a surprisingly attractive bike path flanked by ample green. We emerge into the city core, but rather than heavy urban conflagration, the residential areas seem unassuming, with low-slung apartment buildings perhaps three stories, relatively modest traffic, and best of all, the late afternoon sun has been shining radiantly on the city the entire trip from the airport.
So here I am, finally, after the drawn-out soap opera at the airport following the hellish flight. And in a world where the advertised spaces are usually exercises in compromise, the place turns out to be even much better than I had expected. The flights of whimsy may have seemed somewhat modest in the photos on the AirBnB site, but in the actual apartment, a cohesive sense of rustic beauty prevails.
A rounded and asymmetrical table covered in a rainbow of tiles extends from the raised cooking island covered in colourful square tiles, a trio of woven fabric lamps dangling next to a series of rattan baskets. Loose ropes are threaded across the living room window that faces the opposing apartment across a meager courtyard, unfortunately providing absolutely no privacy.
Behind the living room, a bathroom, with a relatively spacious bedroom with ample cupboard space for folded and hanging clothes, tasteful solid wood Indian furniture, and a view over the surrounding unassuming neighborhood and big skies from the fifth floor abode. A second and primary bathroom is next to the kitchen, which contains a stove, fridge and microwave, although for some reason, a lot of laundry is hanging up drying as well.
Access to the apartment is by means of the living room, which is bright, has two small facing couches, discreet storage space in the narrow entrance way, and both low-key and highly atmospheric Turkish lamps as well as much brighter track lighting attached to the wall.
The young man who manages the apartment for the owner is a student who lives a five minute bike ride away, and will be sure to do whatever he can to expediently respond to any request I may have. I am sure he will do exactly that, although I have already grilled him with questions regarding the nature of the attractions Bogota may have.
The area has a quiet understated beauty that in the photos looked frumpy and unaesthetic, but in real life it seems suffused with a visual cohesion that is difficult to pinpoint.
On the main road the AirBnB manager pointed me to, an abundance of eateries, cafes and bars appear, unassuming, lively, intimate, whimsically furnished, high on character and utterly authentic. Lots of coffee shops are in evidence, indicating that people are big coffee drinkers, bakeries, fast food grills offering local specialties, bars that are sooner gathering places for friends than places to get drunk, quality restaurants, an outlet of the Oma restaurant, and even a cinema and supermarket to round off the mix. The neighborhood that seemed drab in the photos is somehow intriguing, intimate, rudimentary but suggestive in its sense of atmosphere. Of course, even the drabbest areas come to life in their own unique way in the glow of nocturnal illumination.
This area is La Soledad, sandwiched between Santa Fe near the centre to the southeast and the Universidad Nacional de Colombia to the northwest. I naively wander through the quiet streets, taken by my new surroundings, oblivious to the fact that I may get very lost indeed, although fortunately, I don’t stray too far. Buildings are typically three stories, brick or stucco-fronted, with simple entrances, little in the way of adornment on the structures or the grassy patches in front of the buildings. Small fences at times ring properties, and parked cars line both sides of the road. Ostentation is not in evidence here.
At the supermarket, I troll through the aisles, getting a sense of what kind of foods locals would buy. A mix of relatively inexpensive local and more upscale imported goods is on display in this somewhat basic establishment, although the extravagant prices for many import items makes me wonder who locally would have the kind of money to pay some CAD $10 for a bottle of Flemish beer. And given the prices being charged, the establishment could definitely invest a bit more in presentation.
I would love to drink beer, although I am not sure about the quality of local beer, and certainly don’t want to spend the big bucks on the imported beers, never mind the extravagantly expensive wines. Tonight would hardly be the best of nights for drinking to begin with, given that I so exhausted I can barely walk. I need to just focus on the groceries that may be useful, without binge buying things I would just end up leaving in the fridge of the AirBnB apartment.
A German-Venezuelan discreetly comments to me about the quality of the German beers. His banter belies the fact that he is in no place to be buying a bottle of beer for the equivalent of $5. It seems he was born in Germany, but at an early age moved to Venezuela, and that would have taken its inevitable downhill course.
Wandering around the area with my bags of groceries, I am astonished at – how strong the plastic bags are! Over the years, plastic grocery bags back home have gotten skimpier and skimpier, to the point that a single bag with a heavier load is sure to rip. Not here – this is old-school plastic! Celebrate small victories!
Bogota – La Soledad
But where to eat? The array of eateries that looked so inviting on the first round now looks a lot less so, but eventually I land upon the Pizzeria FX. I have my suspicions as to the quality of pizza in any culture too far from the Italian and not necessarily one known for refined cuisine, the extensive selection of chicken-based pizzas also being a red flag, but the ample pizza I am served draped in shredded chicken meat, with artichokes, mushrooms, and traces of ham and cheese turns out to be utterly superlative, something I would never have expected.
Once back from the restaurant, I attempt to make the evening meaningful and productive, although the severity of exhaustion I experience makes an unambiguous mark on me. I am almost deliriously tired, but also physically numb from the duress of the flight. Then who knows what the impact of the high elevation is.