Sparking Up a New Life in Bogota, Colombia

Travel Features Colombia
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We met just before midnight, travelers in an airport. We would fly the red-eye from San Francisco to Atlanta. I would return home to Atlanta. She would connect at Hartsfield-Jackson to travel across a sea.

She was very beautiful.

We found ourselves seated next to one another near the Delta gate. I tried clumsily to think of something to say—some brilliant, charming words to break the ice.

“Are you from France?” I asked in English. “You look like you might be French.”

Adela smiled from under a cloud of brown hair. Her dark eyes sparkled. She answered in flawless French. She spoke the words that launched a thousand pheromones.

“Oui, monsieur. You certainly have a gift. It’s absolutely amazing you can tell that I am French.”

Then she burst out laughing. The sparkle in her eyes turned out to be mischief.

“No, no, no,” she confessed in English. “I am not French. I’m from Bogota. I’ve been in San Francisco for my work. Do you know Colombia?”

As proof of nationality, I suppose, Adela sing-songed four or five sentences in Spanish even more fluent than her French or English.

Our love story began. A chance meeting in an airport in April 2013 reshaped two travelers’ lives.

We boarded. I offered to swap my aisle seat for a middle seat next to Adela. The woman in the middle seat leaped out of it like a Sea World dolphin. She kissed me on the cheek and disappeared up the aisle.

Adela and I talked and talked. We spoke English, since I know only enough French or Spanish to feel smug when I recognize it.

Adela got chilly. I gave her my oversized sweatshirt. Somewhere over Texas, she fell asleep on my shoulder.

In Atlanta, she met family at the baggage claim. We parted without even a hug.

Luckily, travel makes a person feel most anything is possible.

To feel expansive that way, humans invented planes, trains and automobiles. Most of us crave experience and discovery. We travel for the same reason Sir Edmund Hillary gave when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: “Because it’s there.”

In my case, Adela is there.

Nearly

two years after our chance meeting in San Francisco, Adela wears my ring. We will join our lives together in 2015 and travel into the future together.

In our first 20 months, we traveled to keep love alive. First, Miami. Next Lima. Then Bogota, and then Bogota again.

On our first anniversary, April 2014, we rendezvoused in Boston. Adela attended an international conference of ophthalmologists. Professionally, she heals the blind, or at least those on their way to blindness. Cataracts, astigmatisms, blunt trauma wounds—nothing that harms the eye escapes her. I can’t think of a more valuable field of medicine. What would I be, traveler or not, without eyes to see the world?

After Boston, we traveled to Raleigh, Charleston, Savannah and Atlanta. I made a third trip to Bogota, then a fourth. Adela came again to the U.S., and she bravely confronted her virgin Thanksgiving turkey in a first meeting with the McNair family, Bogota meets Dothan, Alabama.

I met Adela’s own family this Christmas. If I proved less charming, blame it on my clumsy Spanish. I catch every tenth word. I try to smile a lot, say please and thank-you, those life-long courtesies bred into an Alabama boy.

Luckily, those courtesies travel well because 2015 will be a year of travel—life-changing travel you might say.

Today, the first day of 2015, I write this traveler’s letter from Bogota, where I will relocate and begin a new chapter in this writer’s life. This letter will be the first in a reoccurring column, which will track the ups and downs of an inspired traveler trying to make sense of his new world. I arrived here on December 20 to look for an apartment.

Bogota, a city of nine million perched in a vast dry lakebed a mile-and-one-half above sea level, offers unvarying 75-degree days and 55-degree nights. Sometimes it feels like Barcelona, sometimes Calcutta. It’s the capital city to a country so stereotyped by media that many people in the States ask if I’ll be getting into cocaine imports. They remind me to avoid kidnapping.

Each

New Year’s Eve, Colombians indulge superstitions, just as we do in the States. I joined the fun this year.

In the first 12 seconds after midnight, revelers stuffed 12 fat purple grapes, one per second, into their mouths, juicily mumbling a good-luck wish for each grape. (Just try it: A table grape here is the size and chewiness of a big toe.)

Champagne flowed. Toasts must be made looking directly into the eyes, or good luck does not follow. The champagne glass must hold an item of gold. Bubbles rise from marriage bands, earrings and necklaces.

Suddenly bereft of their jewelry, women furtively slip away to the powder room. Up until the midnight hour, they have worn yellow panties—only yellow, for some magical reason—and the panties have been worn inside out. When the clock rings in the new year, the underwear must be reversed, then kept on all New Year’s Day.

Out in Boyaca, one of Colombia’s Departments near the capital, and elsewhere, country folk put a flaming match to male and female effigies. These carefully dressed scarecrow-things stand on display by the roadside in the days leading up to the New Year. They burn merrily … then explode like suicide bombers. The Colombians pack the ano viejos, as they are called, with gunpowder, so they become enormous human-shaped firecrackers. A television station in Bogota issued a safety advisory to remind Colombians to take care when they blew 2014 to bits.

Finally, people all over Colombia drag their suitcases out of closets, out of storage spaces, and from under beds. They head down stairs and into the streets.

In the minutes after midnight, fireworks bursting overhead and live bands shaking plaster from the walls at neighborhood parties, Colombians wheel their luggage around the block. They rattle down the sidewalks and cheerfully call out to one another: Feliz Ano Nuevo! Feliz Ano! Buen Viajes!

This ritual invokes a special kind of good luck for the coming year.

The gift of travel.

Adela and I rolled our suitcases an extra two blocks, just for good measure.

I look forward, in 2015, to sharing the gift of travel with the readers of Paste.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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