El Dorado

Bogotá is in some ways a peculiar place.  It’s a juxtaposition of a sprawling, identity-defying metropolis as any other in the world, with the particular rhythm and outbursts of utterly inane insanity that I expect of Colombia.  You’ll be on the Transmilenio, packed with an impossible number of people—heaving, impersonal, pressed against the glass—and outside you can see a man running between cars on the highway, selling fairy-floss.  Though while it does have a Colombian flavour to it, Bogota feels a few steps closer to the ‘real world’ than I wish it did.  It’s in a transition zone between dysfunctional fairytale and modern dystopia.

We were staying with my friend Felipe’s lovely family, in a suburb around 25 Transmilenio minutes north of the centre.  As always, they were the most hospitable and adorable people in the world.  The Dutchie was with us, too, at least for the first few days—she had an earlier flight back to Europe, whereas I was staying on for some Spanish school and my friend Laura’s wedding.  We did have one final day for adventures before I started school, however, and so it was time to go find our fates in Guatavita, home of the El Dorado legend.

In case you’ve never lived on this planet before, El Dorado was the mythical ‘golden city’ sought by the Conquistadors, the wealth of which inspired tragedy and travesty alike.  In reality, the lake around which the legend is centred—Lake Guatavita—was the centre of spiritual rituals for the local people.  It’s shaped like a volcanic caldera, with sharp sides covered in determined trees.  As part of the sacred ritual, the leader (‘zipa’) would be coated in gold, then raft out into the centre of the lake, at which point they would dive into the water and shed the gold.  Further ornaments and offerings would also be thrown in.  One beautiful golden raft, a depiction of the ritual, is kept in the Museo del Oro in Bogotá.

Getting to the lake was a bit of a challenge, to be honest.  We caught the Transmilenio north to Portal, then a local bus.  The driver said for us to change at a town later on, and once we got there, he hustled us onto another bus.

It was not the right bus.

So we found ourselves at the foot of the road to the park’s entrance, and not just any road, but an ‘8 kilometres of uphill’ kind of road.  On the up-side, there was a stall just there, where two ladies were selling sticks of strawberries coated in chocolate and 100’s and 1000’s.  I loved it.

We started walking, neither of us particularly happy, until one of Colombia’s ubiquitous taxis came trundling down the road from the other direction.  There was no real discussion: we were going to pay him whatever he asked for, and thus, with zero to no regrets later, we found ourselves at the entrance to the park.  Where we waited in line for a time made more interminable by the couple making out in front of us the entire time.

Eventually, we did make it inside, for some more waiting around and then a tour of the location in Spanish.  At some point, there was an eclipse, but there were so many clouds that we had no real idea.  The guide left us at the lake, where we joined the swarms of people taking selfies, and then it was time to head on.

As it was still reasonably early in the afternoon, we decided there was just enough time to make it to the salt mines in Zipa.  I went there last time I was in Colombia, and thought it was fantastic enough that Anouk really had to make use of the opportunity.  So, another series of buses and innocuous gravel roads later, we made it to the Catedral del Sal, shortly before they closed down entry for the day.  It was fantastic, but we ended up with an English-speaking guide, who we almost immediately mortally offended.  He had a way of phrasing English that lent a certain comedy to everything he said, and so when he suddenly goes, “do you know Jesus?”, it was so much like a piss-take of a prosetylising pitch that I couldn’t do anything but start laughing and respond sarcastically.  He hated me.  He hated us.  He wanted to throw us into the mine.  And his anger kept escalating as the tour went on, even though I’d managed to reel it in, and the angrier he got, the more hilarious I found everything he said.

(Anouk’s take: “To be fair we did kinda take the piss on jesus. To a clearly religious guy. While we were in a ‘church’”—lucky she walked the “sinner’s staircase” in the cathedral.)

…we should not be let out in public.

Leaving the mine, the Dutchie befriended a dog, then we dropped by a street fair before luckily catching the last directo back to Bogotá for the evening.

The next day, I started school at Nueva Lengua.  I’d signed up for four days’ Spanish lessons, to get me through the past tenses, and it was definitely worthwhile.  That said, in the afternoons each day were dance lessons, which had been part of the draw.  I’ve already mentioned that I took a tango lesson in Cartagena, and I wanted to continue—partly cos it’s super cool and I’m constantly amazed by how people dance, and partly because I knew I’d be called upon to dance at Laurita’s wedding.

Things did not go well.

The first day was fine and pretty enjoyable; the second day, I was a bit ill, so went home; and the third day is where things went wrong.  I’m pretty public, I think, about the issues I have with people grabbing me.  So we’re all circulating around between partners, and I danced with a German guy for a while who was okay with keeping his distance—but then the dance teacher grabbed me.  He pulled me in against his body, and I said that “no, I’d prefer like this”, reverting to second position, with some space between us.  “No, no, no,” he goes, and slammed me back against him.  It was about half a second between me being okay and me going into a pretty unfortunate flashback, which while on the one hand was kind of horrifying, on the other was hilarious: I can remember vividly seeing the instructor’s eyes going from flirtatious, to ‘what’s this girl doing’, to ‘holy fuck what have I done’.  So I ran away to the bathroom until I could breathe again, finished the lesson, and never went back.

Happily, this gave me more time to visit my leather jacket.  I’d decided, after being told back in Antwerp that a leather jacket is a life essential, to go and pick one up while I was in Bogotá.  What I didn’t anticipate was falling wildly in love with the red of one particular jacket—think Bedazzled.  I wasn’t too convinced on the fit, though, and so started going back every day (totally impractical) to see if it had magically changed.  That same colour wasn’t available at any of the other 20-30 leather shops on that block, either.  Eventually I realised that, much like my ridiculously and inappropriately large painting from Cartagena, I was going to buy it.  And thus was born ‘la Roja más Fuerte’.

I went out with Felipe and his lovely girlfriend Paola twice over the week, first while Anouk was still around, and later once she’d already headed back to Belgium.  They took me to Andres DC in the centre of Bogotá, an originally Chían institution, which was multiple floors of decadent chaos.  They insisted I try this cocktail which arrived in a mug the size of my head.  While delicious, I was completely unable to finish it.

Paola and Felipe spent most of the night dancing—still feeling tender after my dance instructor experience, I didn’t participate—and they were so beautiful, like little happy butterflies.

The next day, my final full day in Colombia, I headed to Chía for Laura’s wedding.  Given I (a) wasn’t travelling with makeup beyond some eyeliner and mascara, and (b) I’m completely inept at fixing my face, I booked to have my hair and makeup done first.

More regrets.

The lady ummed and ahhed and then took charge of my face, lying me back into the chair in her administrations.  Perhaps an hour later, with lots of involuntary fake-eyelash-related tears, she sat me back up—and dios mío, who was this monstrous plastic demon looking back at me?  That’s one thing I hate about makeup: people seem to think I need to look like somebody else to be acceptable at all, and this woman had changed everything about me.  It was ghastly, and only the manicurist’s support in helping me convince the makeup lady to make it “más naturale” saved me from washing it off in the bathroom.  The makeup lady was not happy with me.  Well, don’t turn me into a monster, then.  Though to be fair, it’s normal to expect that Australian and Colombian beauty standards would be different, and I hate full makeup at any time.

By this point, I was going to be late to the wedding, so got changed in the salon’s bathroom (ruining my nailpolish in the process) and had them call me a taxi.  Of course, I was going to be late by Australian standards—staff were still setting up when I arrived—but better safe than sorry.

The wedding itself was gorgeous.  Laura was legit a queen, and it was interesting in either event to go to a Catholic wedding.  Luckily, there were a couple of people who spoke at least some English, and they let me know whenever there was a tradition I needed to take part of.

It was lovely to see the whole family again, and their dog, Toby :).  I was chatting with some people in Spanish when Potato—Laura’s dad—came in, and he saw me then explained to everyone that I’d stayed with them a few years ago, but that I didn’t speak a word of Spanish.  The people I’d just been talking to quickly contradicted him, and he was beyond surprised, but then this time we could actually talk!

I’ve gotta say, I’d never seen groomsmen performing stripping-esque routines and giving the bride a lap-dance before, so that was new.  Following the games there was lots of music, and dancing, and it was a very special thing to be part of.

I stayed that night at Laura’s house, because these people are just far too lovely and giving.  I realise I’m just warbling at this point, but it was again special to be able to speak with and see everyone the next day—Laurita at four in the morning as she came back to the house to grab her charger before flying out on her honeymoon, and Angelica and her boyfriend, Potato, and even Consuelita was there.  I don’t know, they’re just a heart-warming group of people, and it was a very special way to finish my time in Colombia.

That afternoon I farewelled Felipe’s family, then headed to the airport: it was time for Madrid and Portugal before returning to Brussels, though I don’t anticipate writing about that.

I do love Colombia.  It’s a diverse, bedazzling, challenging, and beautiful place, full of open-hearted people.  There are still so many things I haven’t seen, and places I haven’t been, and I’m sure I’ll be back: partly for the country, and partly for how I feel when I’m there.  For every country I go to, I feel like a different person, and I think the me I am in Colombia is my favourite version of myself.

It’s a good a reason as any.

Doctorado: the First Semester

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