*This was originally written in 2014 for a good friend’s travel e-magazine, Latitudes, Longitudes. Unfortunately the site is currently on hiatus so I wanted to repost the piece! Have a nice day.
The feeling arrived for the first time once the flight attendants weren’t speaking English anymore. It was a sensation that I never experienced until right this instant but with everything that was about to unfold it was too soon to play a game of detective.
My flight was preparing for departure along the runway of the Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. The sky was covered by a ceiling of grayness as I sat with my forehead practically rubbing against the passenger-side window. I had just spent a handful of hours in layover after a long flight from Houston, another from Los Angeles, and one more from San Francisco.
Lack of sleep, emotions from saying farewell to loved ones back home, and countless ideas crashing through my mind were influencing the layers of uneasiness circulating through my body. At this point it was difficult to determine which one of these three factors was winning the race towards giving my stomach roller coaster rides of apprehension. My final destination would soon be Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, in order to volunteer for three weeks with a nonprofit group doing various community projects.
Having never ventured to this area of the world before, the unknown realm about to be discovered gave me pinches of excitement mixed with lightning strikes of fear. The journey hadn’t lasted a full day and already the urge to return home was whispering through the pores of my consciousness. There was still time. If I hurried I could still change my ticket. It wasn’t too late to collect my backpack, walk away from this runaway train of change, and step back into the sphere of comfort that awaited me through the open arms of friends and family.
Within pounding heart beats the soft chimes of seat-belt signs swiped away the remaining cards of options and soon airline employees melodically explained safety procedures in Spanish. I had no idea what the standing woman just said but I tightened my seat-belt anyway. Views from the passenger side window gradually started rolling forward, indicating that the plane was lurching itself towards takeoff. There wasn’t any turning back as momentum built like a cannon of fate. Within instants the wheels of the mechanical bird separated from its nest and became engulfed by a forest of clouds.
Do I have my passport? Yes. Do I have my camera? Yes. Do I have my backpack? Yes. Do I have the address for the volunteer house? Yes.
Not knowing what waited for me upon landing I decided that these simple questions were all I needed to remember in order to relieve the escalating internal stress. In my imagination a diving board had just been jumped and the only two options ahead were to swim or drown in the pool.
But this was a board that I wanted to jump. It needed to be jumped. Inside I knew it was time to explore, get lost, and discover, yet the rush of approaching uncharted personal territory made sitting still nearly unbearable.
Dragging minutes soon became hours and the unknown feeling from before wasn’t going anywhere. As I peered down into the nothingness of the clouds below this new invisible companion intensified its relentless campaign to shake my hand in greeting.
Curiosity towards this foreign invisible seat partner nearly overshadowed the butterflies and anxiousness that were pumping through my veins as faint views of countryside slowly gained visibility. The plane was beginning its dissent towards Bogotá.
Internal questions of absurdity rained like hail through my mind as dots became buildings and lines became freeways.
Will I get robbed when I land? Is the food safe to eat? Can I even breath the air??
Screeches from the plane´s brakes along the runway of the El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá dissolved the flood of mental wanderings, marking an official start of a journey that had required over a year´s worth of planning.
As other travelers lined the center of the cabin awaiting their opportunity to file outward there no longer was time to think and wonder. I stood to attention, awaited my turn, and cautiously launched a pivotal first step onto Colombian soil via the narrow gateway dock. Ushering out of the plane´s confines into the terminal I could sense the unknown feeling trailing me like an unwanted shadow.
Do I have my passport? Yes. Camera? Yes. Backpack? I need to find the baggage claim.
Shuffling my hands in and out of my pockets to ensure that nothing important had gone missing I picked up my large backpack, mounted it over my shoulders, and followed the illuminated signs towards the exit. The sounds of people hurrying to their gates, blinking lights of portable electronic stands, and mildly welcoming Spanish voices through loudspeakers could be distinguished as I received my welcome stamp in customs.
Months of researching South America meant nothing at this point. All of the books, all of the advice from people who wanted to help, and all of the built up anticipation couldn’t have planned for this moment. This was “now” and it became the time to put away every per-conceived thought and just “see”, “do”, and “be.”
I wasn’t scared anymore. I was terrified. Thumping from the backpack over my shoulders masked the drumming of my pulse as a wall of people standing along the perimeter of the airport´s primary exit came into sight. Signs baring random people´s names, waving hands with hopes of grabbing attention, and stares from countless sets of eyes greeted me and scores of others exiting the terminal.
Passport? Yes. Camera? Yes. Backpack? Yes. Address to volunteer house? In my hand.
The mass exodus of passengers collided with the seemingly sturdy wall of waiting bystanders and a dancing free-for-all erupted like a bursting dam. I did my best to ignore the waves of taxi offerings in an attempt to blend in with the locals even though a gringo wearing a large travel pack is more recognizable than a zebra playing a piano. I needed to find a clearing through the sea of people in order to at least gain a trace amount of bearings before trusting some random person with a taxi ride. One of the numerous warnings people gave me before leaving was to always be wary of taxis in South America. The majority, according to friend´s advice, were legitimate but a select number were false drivers searching for passengers to rob.
A frenzy of honking cars and drivers soliciting passengers filled my eardrums as a heavyset man with slicked-back white hair, gray mustache, and a brown velvet jacket emerged through the skirmish of pedestrians and locked eyes with mine. The indifference on his face as he waved what looked like an official taxi badge prompted an immediately curious sense of hope.
“Taxi?” He sputtered more words but it was all I could understand.
Nearly forgetting all of my Spanish, “Eh, si,” I walked nearer not being able to remember more basic forms of communicating but established a growing sense of confidence thanks to the badge and of course the outlandish brown velvet. Having no idea where the volunteer house was located I handed him the sheet of paper with its address hoping he would have a remote idea where in a city of 11 million people the place was located.
He looked up from the sheet of paper, nodded after a flicker of contemplation, then guided me to a yellow taxi a few feet behind him. He opened the rear passenger door with routine causality, handed the address to a man sitting patiently in the driver´s seat, murmured a few unknown words , then shut it behind me as I nestled my backpack like a security blanket to my side.
I had just trusted a man in brown velvet with my life. Sometime in the past I´m sure my parents told me not to take such actions but this was now a different world and the passing events expired like flashing headlights.
Once the car gained acceleration the unknown man evaporated into the now widening urban horizon of the Bogotá cityscape. The creeping feeling from before had somehow stashed itself inside the taxi and now shed a piercing glare in my direction. Clutching the armrest, absorbing the blooming landscapes as we weaved through traffic, I was now ready to welcome it into my life. I had finally arrived and this once frightening presence would soon become my best friend through this safari down south.
It was the very sensation that fueled my working, saving, planning, and dreaming.
It was the feeling of being alive.
The views weren’t just beautiful as we reached the volunteer house, they were spectacular.