March 8, 2018
I had planned on not documenting anything for the day, but the day ends being quite colourful, although not necessarily in a good way. The morning proceeds as planned, although much later than I had hoped, thanks to the issues I encountered yesterday evening, which pushed the evening much later than I would have hoped. And a departure to Bogotá in a brand new Libertadores bus wouldn’t be bad thing, although not surprisingly, the journey ends up being far longer than expected.
A group of white-shirted bus drivers loiters around a woman and her small stand, her Styrofoam box containing a set of plastic jugs with juices blended with milk, and another blended with water. Motivated by pure self-indulgence, I drink one after the other, soursop, lulo, orange and pineapple, all exotic and entirely unavailable back home. Not that I am really about to get that dehydrated on the air-conditioned bus … Her empanadas and seven grain cake are also very good, and fuel me through the rest of the morning as we amble at low speeds along the narrow single-gauge highway, the sky heavily overcast, our speed permanently reduced by perennial speed bumps and slow tanker trucks.
The landscape darkens as the dark clouds unleash torrential downpours. The notion I held traveling earlier on through Boyacá that the rain would be ephemeral and light in Colombia is far from reality here: the rain is torrential, and risks sweeping away everything in its path. Thankfully, we are in a huge bus, and not traveling at a particularly high speed. Not much of the land around us is visible, the golden grasses and dark green tree canopy melting into a haze of grey. I drift off to sleep and eventually awaken again, the now familiar environment of Agua Azul emerging, and shortly thereafter, we head further west, in the direction of Monterrey. The rains abate somewhat, revealing a rolling dark landscape of deep earth tones and a heavy sky reminiscent of Courbet, the highway soon linear, the bush, pasture land, scrub grasses sliding by uneventfully. I no longer have any idea as to where we could be, but we must be near the border of Casanare and the Meta.
The bus stops frequently for reasons that are not clear, giving me a sense of foreboding that even eight hours may be far too optimistic for the journey’s length. A stop at what looks like a restaurant, but of course the driver doesn’t bother advising anyone as to whether this is a food break. How typical. I speak to the man seated in front of me with an intent gaze, a chemist from Villavicencio who expresses disappointment at so many things in Colombia, which I tritely attempt to provide a more cheery counterpoint to. Talk is cheap when you are a tourist.
Most of the river beds we pass are both very wide, and also dry, which I assumed would normally be the case due being the end of the dry season. Into the wet season, the rivers must be raging powerful torrents, coursing through this virile landscape that some call the lungs of the country. We cross another bridge, the wide river bed we traverse largely barren due to the upstream dam, and already we are in a suburb of Villavicencio. We climb steadily along a road lined with a modest urban strip surrounded by lush subtropical forest, higher and higher, the city now unfolding far below us, and even far more breathtaking, ominous peaks laden with rich foliage through which thread tendrils of clouds, their brethren remaining from the earlier downpours lingering high above. We weave through this new spectacular landscape of suspension bridges that cross deep ridges, tunnels that broach the peaks soaring above, and again breathtaking vistas of dark green mountains and deep valleys emerging as we progress on to the next set of bridges and tunnels.
Climbing slowly, the perennial hairpin turns preventing expedient progress, never mind the far slower tanker trucks attempting to navigate the labyrinthine inclines towards the capital region of the country. It seems as the biggest danger to the visitor to this country is becoming habituated to the utterly stunning landscapes. And yet to think that after two months of traveling in the country I have actually seen so little …
Dark sets in, and we are still in the mountains, although no longer climbing, the high ridges gradually mellowing in the approaching dusk. Our speed increases, although as clusters of lights emerge in the distance, signalling the approach to Bogotá, our speed diminishes gradually with the increasing traffic. And now amidst the ridges belts of lights sweep before us as we continue stolidly into the darkness, now stopping to let passengers off in the thick of traffic, the characterless urban sprawl of southern Bogotá unfolding around us.
We continue onwards, the unabating journey further into the guts of this vast city, although on the positive side, we are not significantly slowed down by traffic, despite the fact that we are still at the tail end of rush hour in a city with a population of some eight million.
The owner of the small snack stand at the bus station tells me she loves Bogotá and her country, but is nonetheless heading soon with her husband and young child to Montreal to work and hopefully earn better money than she could here. Good luck with that! Besides the cold, you will love Montreal!
The easy-going cab driver is very reassuring about finding the address of the AirBnB place, and his confidence seems to be well-placed as we proceed to familiar landmarks further to the north of the centre. But passing Carrera 7, he tells me he doesn’t have minutes in his cell phone, which is not a good sign, as the area we are heading into is exceedingly complicated.
I prod him continually to follow the instructions as to where we should going, and the resulting conundrum occurs precisely because he doesn’t pay attention. We were to enter Carrera 1 from Calle 74, and proceed down a short distance, but having entered elsewhere, we continue at some length, not able to find the address in question, or for that matter, even make sense of the addresses.
In theory, the addresses marked on the mostly brick towers following Carrera 1 in this apparently luxurious neighborhood should be tagged with the nearest intersecting calle, with the house numbers increasing as well. The house numbers do seem to increase consistently, but not only do calle numbers appear that we actually do not cross – itself difficult to ascertain because there are almost never street signs in Colombia – but the Carrera itself keeps changing, as well as the inclusion of the letter indicating direction.
The few we encounter on the winding carrera are of little help, especially the police detachment. We are told something different by everyone, and not being able to turn around until some considerable distance has passed makes things worse. Finally, at one of the edifices, the guardian lets us use his cell phone, and we are in the clear. For one, we also had the bad luck that the building in question is blocked by a road crew which arrived just before us.
The apartment itself is unusual, a funky mid-century modernist decor, slightly decaying, with unusual prints, furniture, two fireplaces, eclectic furniture, a huge bed, ample bathroom, tiny kitchen corner, set directly on the loud Carrera 1, and very spacious. Very annoyingly, there is a very strong musty odour, possibly from cats, stale cigarette smoke, or even worse, mould.
I haven’t eaten all, feel exhausted and physically ill after the day’s experiences, and yet it is late. Given that we are in Bogotá and in a very privileged area, there may well be places that are open still, and it turns out there are, beginning with the Bogotá Beer outlet near Carrera 7, packed with people, Colombia’s answer to the generic sports bar with touches of the English pub. Given the absolute saturation of these institutions in my home city, I would normally not be caught dead here, but I have little choice. The flight of beer samplers is … acceptable, while the vegan burger is mediocre. Again, an experience utterly consistent with the places I avoid back home. And it’s not as if you can’t get great burgers in Colombia …
The last fiasco of the day occurs when I attempt to return to the apartment. Dutifully following Calle 70 uphill, then what I take to be 71A, I am doing well, until I decide to take a shortcut using the staircase leading up from inside the narrow park following alongside. At the top of the staircase, the landscape looks familiar, a weaving road lined with impassive brick and glass towers, and yet there isn’t the traffic I would expect to see on the busy Carrera 1.
I walk further along, hoping to spot some familiar landmark, which is of course not possible, given that the area is utterly unknown to me. Further along yet, and nothing. I come upon some institution shrouded in darkness, and in front of the facing building a contingent of police and paramilitary police. Welcome to Colombia! But they are intent on being helpful, and actually walk me the entire distance back to the location of the AirBnB building. It turns out that the staircase actually culminated in some alley to the side of Carrera 1, and I took the wrong direction, weaving deeper and deeper into this obscure labyrinth.