The Hungry Ghost of Colombia

Yes, i know, im just about to go to bed. Before I go… I’m here in Bogota, where a big hotel suite and crisp air combined with overcast skies and strong coffee seem to juice the mojo and inspire me to hit the keyboard. How do I end up here so often? I feel like the “hungry ghost” mentioned by the late Bourdain. I wander these cities, some more than others in search of something. At times I return again and again to haunt these areas, leaving pieces of myself behind. As i turn the idea over in my mind (always at night and when alone) I stumble on bits of clues as to why I do it. I am searching for authenticity. Authentic experiences, authentic interaction. I need the real. I am addicted to it. Hence why you will never see me haunting a cruise ship or an all inclusive resort. I can read a brochure and know exactly what that entails. I need something else. a kind of adventure, a kind of lust, a big fat fucking jump out of the comfort zone. Colombia in almost any iteration is dangerous. You absolutely NEED to be aware of your surroundings. As I talk to a range of people here though they say its gotten exceptionally better over the last decade.

I was never drawn to the easy places. London, Paris, Barcelona…all amazing cities in their own right with rich heritage and all quite easy to be robbed in, but also choked with loud tourists, selfies sticks and the circus that goes along with it. I don’t haunt those places, I only visit from time to time, typically for a long layover. Often to confirm my suspicions. I have a deep seated affection for visiting a place with no preconceived positive connotation and letting that place blast me with the magic. I have yet to fully unravel the mystery that lands me in certain places again and again. I can feel the urge to return. I think if I had to guess this would boil down to two primary things. People and food. the building blocks of any destination. Latin people, and the ingenuity they invest into their food/passion simply can not be overlooked, or god forbid ignored. I’ve been coming to Colombia for five years now and feel as if each city is its own country. from the coastal spots to the inner mountainous region, its really between Medellin and Bogota for me. I’ve not spent nearly as much time in Medellin as I have Bogotá simply because I have more people in Bogota and the flights go on sale more often. Each time I see fares under $300.00 I grab at least one. Sometimes up to a year in advance. “Colombia next year for a week”? of course. i’ll make it work. “Better buy two” The addiction for travel works like bread coupons, one can never have enough tickets to the promised land.

I am so moved by the people here, by the heaviness of their situation, that I started a non profit foundation this year to support the people escaping Venezuela into neighboring Colombia. Right now we are focused on artists and supporting their work but will soon expand. Knowing how my mind works, we named this effort The Andino Foundation. The Andes region encompasses Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. This gives me fertile ground to roam and search, finding the good stuff while I hopefully leave the world a bit of a better than when I found it. I have yet to grow tired of wandering. Perhaps I will slow down one day, but in the immediate future, I’m thinking quite the opposite. I’ve been so many places that have the magic, How could I not dig into these locales to the utmost extent?

The Grit

Well this is a whopping pain in the ass. I packed my gear and headed to a Starbucks here in Bogota. I know I know, how could I patronize the evil empire cause their all big and corporate and stuff. Well amidst all the evil they typically have good Wi-Fi, low chances of stabbing and despite being the coffee capital of the world, I was hankering for a chai. This location is a 10 minute walk from my spot and I decided to go. At times I dig their clever furniture and amazing views from their key locations. This time though I arrive, feeling an urge to get some things out, the overcast skies and some recent events inspiring me to hit the keyboard…But the fight with Starbucks is watching all the seats disappear while you order and wait for your beverage. Found a great spot on the third floor with a view of the park, and then…no Wi-Fi. No Starbucks network, shit just vanished. 

I venture to the second floor believing it to be a signal issue. I ask the girl at a nearby table if her Starbucks works in my toddler Spanish, and she says yes it works fine. Well shit. Mine still isn’t here. Give it five minutes, sip that dirty chai, feel that explosive rocket fuel caffeine begin to coarse through your veins like a super power.

Ah! We have arrived! Just when I began to feel a heartbeat behind my eyes the Wi-Fi network mystically appeared and we are good to roll! The network is snappy and seems stable. In our modern dopamine soaked culture its always interesting to be unplugged for a few hours/days, venturing into the unknown while the world stays plugged in. What are they saying about you? Who’s liked your cat photo, who’s talking shit about your bathing suit pic from 5 years again?!?! These mysteries need answering, and they need them now! Except they down. You reconnect and get 3-5 junk notifications (thank god a FB. Garage sale is happening near my home 5,000 miles away, what if I had missed that?!?!

I’ve wandered far and wide in this post and you might be wondering what the hell the title means. Well let me tell you. In short my thesis is that solo travel teaches you grit. That’s important because grit is absolutely unequivocally important in your life. Grit is what gets you there. Facing the fear of the unknown, and pushing ahead regardless. In a place like Bogotá you are surrounded by so much grit. Every hour off every day.  From the guy who commutes 2 hours each way to his serving gig, to the hotel staff that continually put in 12 hour days. When I get the opportunity to chat with these folks they rarely if ever complain, they are raising families, stretching budgets, dealing with heartbreak and unimaginable exhaustion. They could lay out their trials and tribulations all day, instead they invariably always tell me about their dreams. I soak it up and carry it with me all day, all week, and all the way home. I LOVE  chatting about dreams and goals and ambitions. To me that’s the lifeblood of the human experience . Dreams take grit, and Bogota is saturated with it. 

Back to Bogotá

…and here we are once again. Rainy days in the Colombian capital. moody mountain views and distant thunder. Strong dark coffee is perfect to fight the afternoon nap feelings. I arrived back in Bogota around 10:30 pm, cleared customs quick, the line was light, and full of edgy defense contractors and people visiting family. I had a contact come and grab me for the very reasonable sum of 30,000 pesos. The car was tiny and possibly a Chinese knock off of a South Korean model. Crammed into the front as non official taxis are a legal grey area we sped toward the pink zone, AKA Zona Rosa, one of the more unlikely places for gringo stabbings in the city. The driver was from Medellin, a born Paisa. We talked about how the food was better was there, Bogota was a bit cold, and Cartagena too damn hot. A very similar conversation I have with most Paisa’s I encounter in Bogota.

This mission was different, I had returned to the city laden with precious cargo. turns out the pure orgiastic consumer haven that is the United States consumes quantities of high end electronics like the world might soon end. Always onto whatever the newest item might be, north Americans fiendishly devour it. easy credit terms, lay-away, buy now, pay later, damn the consequences, we must have it! This means that all the slightly used gadgets plummet in value…until you relocate them to countries with a much different GDP.

My goal here was simple. After coming here a half dozen times and getting a feel for the country and the people here, I had started a non profit foundation, an organization to facilitate the repurposing of said electronics to this market, and repurposing them, then using the funds to help the most disadvantaged folks here. Enter the Venezuelan diaspora. I will write more about all of these efforts later. ( I know, I know, I NEED to write MORE). I can only put proverbial pen to paper when the mood strikes. Often times writing is cathartic for me, the mood strikes during times of elation, and times of eminent peril. Looking at the news headlines so far this year things are looking mighty grim. Thus perhaps the words will flow.

So here I am in Bogota, collecting stories, watching the rain, pondering my role in this big twisted red brick drenched place. I have two weeks here, and I return again next month. Continually scratching at the surface. Making a small difference here and there, hoping it makes a slight positive dent in peoples lives. I know at least some of them find my attempts at the Spanish language mixed with sign language humorous. Sometimes sharing a meal with someone, and laughing a bit is best kind of impact to have.

Bogotá in the Rain

Holy shit it’s November. I’m 24 hours returned from Bogotá and Colombia is on my mind. What is it about this place? After venturing there the first time, I knew the world simply wouldn’t be the same. For the Midwestern American imagination Colombia stirs up exotic and dangerous stories. I suppose that’s why I had to go.

The stories I have encountered there keep me coming back, as often as possible. Stories of triumph, stories of despair. Realising that there are countless questions, and no easy answers. Carrying those questions with me back to the states over the years has changed me. Travel will often do that. Our very psyche must expand to accommodate new experiences and once it does, there is no going back. You can feel your previous notions creak and fracture with these new voyages. Over time they will blown apart as the former completely yields to the way things are now.

There are a few places on this stunning planet that have had this definitive impact on me, and Colombia is one of them. I have begun to untangle these stories and sort them into what they mean. Even writing about this place has its kinds of fits and starts. Now that its snowing and a touch unforgiving outside here, the time has come to write it out.

More to come soon.