I say farewell to the US with another long bus journey back to LA and one more rather jaded day in suspense of my onward flight and what awaits me in Colombia. My third couchsurfing host takes me to an open mic night straight after I arrive in the city, where I originally planned to perform some poetry, but I’m a little relieved that a considerable delay in my journey has made this impossible. We watch a wonderful mixture of poems, comedy, music, nerves, oversharing, and like any open mic the quality meanders between sublime and tragic.
I try to lap up what more I can of LA in the hours that remain to me, and manage to explore some of downtown before the heat forces me back into air conditioned cafes and the absorption of writing. I even fit in Venice Beach in the daytime before my flight, as it’s on route to the airport, but sunbathing properly proves difficult with all my belongings in tow. As I walk down the strip and look out to sea and across the sands, I can’t help singing Phantom Planet’s California, and thinking about The O.C. – for which I had a strong teen obsession. I realise I haven’t quite got my geography right here, but it was close enough and the lifeguard huts, the focus of many an emotional scene, are identical.
At the airport I curse my choice of flight time, made casually and unsympathetically all those months ago. Leaving at midnight, I have yet another stopover in Miami Fort Lauderdale airport, getting me into Bogota at around midday, the disrupted journey meaning little sleep and few resources to tackle an unfamiliar city and a still impenetrable language. The taxi driver rolls his eyes disdainfully at my Pidgeon Spanish, and I have to show him several saved screenshots of google maps before he’ll drive me to my destination. I’m staying with a friend of a friend who’s kindly agreed to put me up for my two nights there.
I have a figure in my head for what the journey should cost, as informed by this same friend, and I’m increasingly alarmed as the meter climbs to almost double this as we make our way through three quarters of an hour’s sluggish traffic jams. When we arrive at the apartment, the taxi driver and porter of the building conspire to belittle me as I fail to understand them whilst we sort out the fare and why I’m there. At one point they even resort to shouting Spanish at me, which really doesn’t help. ‘I’m not stupid, I just don’t understand what you’re saying,’ I say in Spanish and disappear up to the apartment, bewildered and slightly hysterical.
A lovely family, food and bed awaits me there, which I’m hugely thankful for. Later, after several hours of sleep, I check the exchange rate again and the £40 taxi ride I thought should be £25 was actually the difference between £8 and £5.
It’s always when I travel to a new country, usually combined with a sleep-depriving journey, that I feel at my most vulnerable. This is when I’m most likely to do a quick Skyscanner for flight prices home. In these moments though, I have to remind myself what I’m experiencing is extremely temporary. My first day in Colombia was one such moment.
Day two though, and my only chance to explore the city, I awake rejuvenated and after careful instructions – nothing is straightforward here apparently – I book an Uber and head to Monseratte, the popular funicular and cable car up to a mirador of the city. After my month at sea level I’d forgotten about the problem of altitude and read with interest the warning signs at the bottom of the attraction about just how high I’ll be ascending to.
I can definitely feel it tightening my breathing as I reach the top of the funicular and walk the short distance to the viewpoint and the church. The size of Bogota spread beneath is incomprehensible and it’s with some awe that I now look down upon the city. It’s a shame, I think, I won’t have more time to explore the place. I head back and walk the short distance to the Candelaria district, where I find many beautiful churches and several absorbing museums. I feel like I’ve hardly got a feel for the place when the sky darkens and I realise it’s already 6.30. Not wanting to be alone at night in an unfamiliar city, I take an Uber back to the apartment.
I enjoy all three of my Uber rides immensely. Due to the sheer amount of traffic, they are all of some length and therefore good chances to practice Spanish, and in turn English, which all three of my drivers seem to be trying to improve. Together they restore confidence not only in my own linguistic abilities, but also in taxi drivers in general after that first disastrous experience from the airport.
It is with considerably more confidence that I wave goodbye to the last of these, Franz, at the airport before my flight to Medellin the next day, and my two weeks of language school. But all that awaits me there is one six hour flight delay, two McDonald’s meals, one courtesy of Viva Colombia, many hours browsing the limited offering of shops, several difficult conversations in Spanish with airline staff, quite a lot of mediocre writing and eventually one extremely enjoyable Simon Pegg film.