Walking Bogota, Colombia

With one more step retracing my younger self, I arrive in Bogotá. Eight million people strong, over a mile and a half high, at the foot of the most impressive mountains any city can boast, this place should intimidate anyone. Buses racing back and forth, mild adherence to sidewalk safety, a reputation for violence. For the last six and a half years, I have lived in a lazy fishing village on the mild coast of California. Bogota, Colombia? I should be terrified of this place.

I really should be. During the time I lived here in the late ’70’s, US Ambassador Diego Asencio was kidnapped and held for 61 days. Fellow Peace Corps volunteer Richard Starr had been kidnapped before I arrived, held for three years and released during my stay. At times, buses I rode stopped unannounced on the side of highways, let out all the passengers, with drivers stating that a transportation strike had been called. Fifty-odd Colombians and me, often in the dark, struck out over fields, walking miles in a direction I vaguely remembered as being toward home.

Back then, I lived in a northern barrio of Bogotá where the terrorist group M-19 had roots. When soldiers were sent to search for terrorist group members, women from the neighborhood would stand at street corners and wave people safely away from where the soldiers were patrolling. The US Embassy was barricaded downtown and I lived on the outside of its safety net.

But I simply was never afraid. This was a city that may have had political issues and over-reaching violence, but I never saw it, and to this day acknowledge my luck. Regular people lived regular lives, and I felt no threat and no personal animosity aimed at me. I bought my bread from the German bakery, I rode to work on buses – usually with no problem, I went to language school in a beautiful tree-covered neighborhood. Maybe there was a Bogotá with a different world-wide reputation. But there was also my Bogotá: long streets to walk, buses whose routine I needed to learn, spectacular cloud-filled skies, sidewalk food stalls, regular people.

And I am back for the first time in 40 years. We had stayed at the Tundama Hotel on our first night in Bogotá in June of 1978, my husband and I and over 100 other new Peace Corps volunteers. In a strange wave of sentimentality,  we had tried to find the hotel online to reserve a room and really re-live that experience. But, the Tundama is gone, and without an address, we may never know the reason why.

We stay at the Tequendama Hotel, a classic downtown business hotel where we can venture north, where we had lived, and south, where we had worked. I hope to visit other places for which I have no address. How far will my faulty memory take me?

It’s an interesting way to travel – striking out to see those idiosyncratic places that aren’t on anyone else’s list of tourist sites. We walk south on Carrera 6 and – without intending – find the old theater where we used to buy fresh-roasted potato chips to eat during the movie. It still stands there, in the middle of a city-block of buildings, but is wrapped with no-trespassing tape, and no movies are advertised. We turn toward the steep mountainside roads and walk through Parque Nacional, which is exactly as I remember it – a wild forest in the middle of an urban tangle.

From there, we step onto Carrera 7, catch a bus and visit Unicentro – the shopping center where we used to meet friends. We walk most of the long way from Unicentro to our old neighborhood. We recognize the overpasses, the view east to the mountains, and some older buildings. We catch a bus back downtown and find Avenida Caracas. We walk and walk and walk following the bus routes and past the graffitied buildings, trying and failing to find one of the children’s centers where we had worked.

But we do find a city that has built beautiful new neighborhoods and has added an impressive transportation system. We stop along Carrera 7 in an unfamiliar restaurant and eat familiar arepas and ajiaco.

Bogotá gives us a visit that helps me recall the glorious beauty of the region, the pride of the people.

But as for my personal memories – something just isn’t quite right. Maybe I can blame it on the altitude sickness that rocks me on this trip. At 8,600 feet, I feel dizzy, head-achey and muddle-minded. My own recollections seem from someone else’s life.

Who was that young woman who lived in such a challenging place? If I had had a daughter, I would have been immersed with anxiety at the thought of her experiencing the life I lived here. But it was me living in this unusual place, and I was then and still am quite normal and usual. Even in the challenge of the late 1970’s, I felt my life was routine, unremarkable.

The whole experience of going back reminds me that life, always, is just one small step at a time wherever you are.

Once again, Bogotá gives me a gift of extraordinary beauty and ordinary life.

 

 

Please join the Monday Walk with RestlessJo and friends:

Advertisements

Walking Back Home – Pasto, Colombia

 

 

It had been our plan for forty years to someday, somehow return to a place we had called home. The city is off most travelers’ maps. It’s never been on any magazine’s list of desired places to visit. And it’s so far off the North American travel radar that I wondered if even we, having known and loved this place years ago, could find our way back.

Of course, it is possible to go. There are paved roads passing through, and airlines fly to a near-by airport. Wikipedia says 500,000 people live there now. Five hundred thousand? How did that happen, I ask myself? I remember a very small city with a Colonial-style town center and unpaved streets running up toward the hills that circle the town. I remember the isolation, the unpredictable roads and the difficulty of getting there. I remember the Trans-America Highway, which runs past the town, being closed twice a day for the parade of cows going to and coming back from the grassy pastures along the sides of the Galeras Volcano.

Could we tolerate the travel that it takes to get back to our old home? The roads can be dangerous. I had ventured out many times by bus and remembered well the steep drop-offs and the hair-pin turns. Though I never experienced anything of the sort, travelers are now advised against nighttime journeys in this region because of robberies and kidnappings. Since moving away, I had laughed at seeing the regional airport on one infamous list: most hair-raising airplane landings. It was time to find out how far we were from our younger selves, who had reveled in this place so long ago.

Pasto, Colombia. Could I take a walk back home?

I start at Bogotá’s airport, with an eager pacing stride back and forth while waiting to board the flight. It is 766 km (476 miles) from Bogotá to Pasto; air travel is the best way to cover the distance. And yes, when we land, both my husband and I recognise how close to the drop-off edge of the run-way we come.

Many of the turns in the road on the long ride from the airport are familiar. The most significant, just before we get into town, appears ahead and I feel like I am 24 years old again. I know this spot.

But then we take the turn, and a huge city reveals multi-storied, cemented, squared-off apartment complexes littering the hillsides. Suddenly I am lost, and I wonder how on earth things have changed this much. I have been gone a long time.

The taxi leaves us off in the historic middle of town. This part of Pasto, I know. I take my rolling suitcase in hand, heave it over the familiar cobbled roadway and walk up to our residencia. The colonial facade is exactly the style I remember, sitting along a street that is exactly the same as I walked forty years before. I push open the double wooden door and am welcomed into an open interior courtyard. This is the Pasto I recall. We leave off our travel gear and head to the streets.

The annual Blacks and Whites Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) is taking place all around us. I walk into the streets with hundreds of other Pastusos and am enveloped with a sudsing of white foam. Yesterday, black oil paint would have been streaked onto my face by the fingers of friendly strangers. Today, salsa music blasts from boom boxes on the open trunks of cars parked on the side streets and everyone – EVERYONE – holds spray containers of white foam, randomly dousing each other with the wet white powder. No one gets angry at this overly-intrusive act of joyful aggression. I walk among the crowd and begin to relive my past.

Down the street, I see a familiar corner, and head that direction. It’s funny how significant the simple things in life are in restrospect. I walk up to the super-market where we shopped so long ago. Not the central park monument or the large governmental buildings, but the place where I bought my bread draws my attention. It has the same concrete steps, the same railing, the same street sign. But the store has a different name: ‘Sarin’s‘, as I remember, is now ‘Exito‘.

On the sidewalk, I buy bottled water from a woman who might be the daughter of the flower salesperson from forty years ago. I walk farther along the street, trying to escape the crowds, and come to the corner where I used to turn on my way home.

Along the way, I recognise the two-story wooden building with the garage-like doors. I remember the two-toned colonial home that was on the street before my own. But as I walk to where I thought I used to live, things seem to have changed. We didn’t have addresses back then, but before we left for Colombia this time, I thought I had found my old home on Googlemaps. But suddenly, it isn’t where I thought it had been. Maybe I should walk to the next block.

But the next block isn’t familiar either.

I retreat to the town center, where only the names of the stores have changed. Here, I can view the town as I remember it from the safety of the residencia‘s tiny balcony. The festival goes on in the streets below me, now with a thousand friendly revelers, and I have a momentary feeling of having found my old home.

I have five more days to find the exact house where I lived. But as I step closer to the edge of the balcony – music so loud my head pounds with the beat, the cobbled streets now completely white with the powdery wet spray – it doesn’t seem I need to feel any closer to my once hometown of Pasto.

 

Please join the Monday Walk with RestlessJo and friends: