South America

The Do-Over

 

I’m back in a place that pulls the rug out from under me while simultaneously tugging at my heartstrings.

The last time I was here, I was terrified, overwhelmed by the known unknown. The mental space to contemplate the unknown unknown came later. I’d landed in Bogota with bad Spanish, a 6 year old copy of South America on a Shoestring, a 4-night reservation in a hostel, and two weeks to get to Bolivia.

It sounds like the beginning of a great adventure, and it was. It was also the start of a 4-day panic attack that I mistook for altitude sickness: difficulty breathing, upset stomach, lack of appetite. I was frozen by fear of the vast openness of my life. I had no commitments, save a few meet ups, for months. I had no place to be. There were endless details to be addressed – where to sleep, to eat, to go, and how to get there (and what language was spoken or currency used once I did) – but no requirements, other than those I created for myself.

And then there was the city. Nestled into a lovely colonial, though basic, hostel in la Candelaria, I was surrounded by colorful two-story buildings with tile roofs and travelers. I could walk easily to many museums and the funicular, to the transmillenio to explore farther. But Bogota is as imposing as it is welcoming, and the security admonitions abounded.

My feet were cemented by my fear. Each day, I set a new target – a museum or sight just a tiny bit beyond my comfort zone (a relative statement, since cities have never been my thing) and eventually I found my way. It took more than one town, more than that first week, but I was soon able to balance unfettered glee with rational fear, for months on end.

Back in Bogota just over three years since I first arrived, and with only a day to play before moving on, I was nostalgically endeared to my poor, terrified self from that October. It’s a huge city, and exploring a new part of it with Spanish that seems to have completely escaped me, the challenges are real and many – language, altitude, safety. Aside from the arrivals hall in the airport, nothing is recognizable, and that fear comes back. When I set out to explore, the sky intermittently dumping water on my plans, air chocked by exhaust, there is much to be reckoned with. So I think back to what it is that tempers the fear: a manageable, bit-sized goal. Find just this one church, if there is time add just this one museum, and get back before dark. Sticking to that plan, the fear is gone.

It turns out the church isn’t so amazing, and I give up on the museum, as it is farther than I thought, and not walkable, and the altitude had given me a headache. But I have, once again, found my travel legs, my giddy love of the ridiculous impediments chance throws in our path and the encounters we greet in surmounting them. They are all little chips off this giant gem of life that gleams before us, and one by one we collect them, piece them together and make our own valuable stone.

 

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