In August of 2012, I found myself on a plane headed to Bogotá, Colombia. I was traveling alone and my level of Spanish fluency was equal to perhaps a six-month-old baby. A carousel of emotions rotated in my mind, mostly fear, as I left the familiarity of home and gravitated toward a new world.
The unknown is what scared me; I didn’t know the culture very well, had no contacts there, and had no idea what or who was waiting for me when I landed. It was this same uncertainty that inspired the trip; I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. After a layover in Panama City, the flight finally touched down on Colombian soil. It was at this point, I remember when my internal stress was at an all-time high. With the address to my accommodation clutched in my hand, the process of actually getting there wasn’t determined. The only things certain were that I was about to exit the plane, and somewhere on a baggage carousel would hopefully be my backpack. After that, it was a terrifyingly blank canvas.
The El Dorado airport was immense and it seemed like I was the only gringo with a large backpack walking out of the terminal. I could have asked someone about buses or shuttles to the city center but at that point, I couldn’t muster up an actual sentence in Spanish.
I could feel a soft blanket of heat as I entered the Colombian atmosphere for the first time. The scene felt frantic as I decided to trust my life with a taxi. The fray of the passenger pick-up zone of the airport seemed fast and shocked my consciousness. With crowds of people walking in all directions and a seemingly endless supply of taxis, many of which asked me if I wanted a ride at the same time, I took my first risk of the journey:
A man in a brown jacket stepped into view with a taxi badge and asked where I was going. Tired, stressed, and now overwhelmed, I showed him the address. With a quick gesture, he pointed me to his vehicle. I said “OK” and entered his car, hoping that this was the right decision.
I found out that he actually was a taxi driver. Or, at the very least, he decided to play the role of one at that moment in time. We successfully navigated through an endless sea of tall buildings and a city that had previously just been part of my Lonely Planet reading list.
After about an hour we had made it and I was alive. More importantly, I truly felt alive. The sensation of actually getting from point A to point B in a new country made me feel like anything was possible. All the planning, saving, and hours on multiple planes were worth it for this moment. This was my invisible travel badge of honor. As the man with the brown jacket drove off to perhaps save another scared foreigner at the airport, I knew Colombia would always hold a special place in my heart.
Since that day I knew I’d want to keep coming back to this country. The only question was when. Well, it’s been nearly ten years, a whole decade, since embarking on that trip. As for everyone, life has had many twists, turns, decisions, and changes. New priorities, projects, a pandemic, relationships, and breakups have all happened since then. Much had changed since 2012 but one thing stayed the same in my mind:
I wanted to be back in Colombia one day.
Five weeks ago, in April 2022, this goal finally became a reality. A second fateful plane left San Francisco and stopped in Panama City, then another landed once again in Colombia’s capital. After ten years, I was back in Colombia. A similar sensation of fear echoed behind me as I exited the plane and followed the signs to baggage claim yet at the same time it was different: I had been here before.
This time around I sported a suitcase rather than a bulky backpack. My accommodation details were saved on my phone rather than in a journal and my Spanish was good enough to ask someone at an information kiosk about shuttles. Exiting the airport, not in search of a man with a brown jacket but just to get some fresh air and an empanada, the scene wasn’t nearly as fast or chaotic as I’d remembered from ten years prior. Perhaps it was the effect of the pandemic or maybe I was just getting older.
In the distance, I could see the makings of a tiny white building at the top of a sea of mountains. It looked like it could have been the famous sanctuary called Monserrate where ten years ago I visited with a buddy from New York named Max. It was so far away to know for sure, but for an instant flashes of memories from ten years ago hovered in my consciousness. During this trip it would only remain a fixture in the mountains, like a mirage, sitting in homage to a previous chapter in life. My time in Bogotá would be just a layover and within a few hours my stay in Colombia’s largest city had already ended.
My final destination awaited: Neiva, an hour by plane in the southern region of the country. I felt thankful for my first experience in Colombia and all the great people I met back then. Waiting for the last plane to Neiva I was grateful for this second chance to be in this beautiful country.
New memories and people awaited.
To be continued…