Only as our finger hovers over “Purchase” on the airline website are we free. In that moment, we haven’t yet determined when we should depart for the airport. We haven’t compared hotel reviews or fretted about connections in Dallas or Amsterdam. The world is ripe for adventure, and we are courageous explorers, savvy and open to change.
Then we plan.
We request advice. We read travel books. We map our journeys from the first moment to the last, stringing sights like a pearl necklace: churches and museums, parks and promenades. We anticipate —no, we insure— against the unexpected, insulating ourselves from the very freedom we sought when we were inspired to travel.
Thankfully, the world has other aims for us. We know this. Floating beneath our intent for control, our subconscious minds are drawn to navigate the inky network of adventure and surprise. Part of us hopes to be whisked away, tested by unpredictable circumstances, because those moments are what make us feel alive.
Journeys like these bring us to strange, bustling streets bursting with storefronts painted in fuchsia and robin’s egg blue, whose historic palimpsest chips away at the hardened walls of our hearts. This is no quaint European vacation whose transit strikes leave time for cappuccino or whose closed museums yield afternoons at the edges of the Seine. This is La Candelaria, the oldest neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia, whose sun-drowsed stoops abut chaotic, stony El Centro.
Unlike Florence, nothing stops in Bogotá. Not the abuelitas selling mobile phone minutes, or the flocks of fruit vendors or the toothless old men shaking plastic cups of change outside La Iglesia de San Francisco.
Calles and carreras are easy to confuse. One minute the route is clear, then suddenly the shops become seedier, the faces attuned to the gringa, the freckled brunette whose handbag is full of American promise. A homeless woman calls to her in Spanish as she steps through the square to the sound of makeshift drums beaten by a teenage boy near the fountain.
A la izquierda, a la derecha, she thinks as she turns left and right. She’s following the spire of the yellow church, a landmark her friend said would guide her. From all directions, it’s just out of reach. Her heart flutters when the guard at the ministry of finance doesn’t understand her query, nor she his response. She stops to ask one woman and then another with no luck; she wonders if she’ll find her way.
The gringa pauses in a colonnade to check the map, unable to find her quarry, a crisp white building where a trove of chubby Botero paintings and sculptures await, cherubic nudes blushing not for themselves but the viewers who giggle at their plump nakedness. She turns around, crossing the square again, shooing the wares they press into her hands and the flyers they flutter in her face. She pushes through the crowds gently, as if they were her mother’s beaded curtains.
The streetlight turns and she stops short, saving herself from death by taxi, stumbling back atop the curb. She looks up for the first time in hours, and suddenly, there is the Museo del Oro where she began. Her bearings regained, she abandons her search for Botero and walks instead to the base of Monserrate —this, she can find— and boards the funicular.
Her heart beats in her throat as the old cable car hovers parallel with the mountain all the way to the top where a church glows green against the falling dusk. In this aerie pilgrimage, her friend awaits, arms outstretched. Nico has sold her fresh fruit every morning, each more strange and delicious than the other. When she sees him, her mission is complete.
At home, she’s never relieved, but here at 10,000 feet where planes fly, she feels unweighted. She tells him about the graffiti murals and the special gold room at the Museo del Oro. She doesn’t mention the elusive Botero.
Nico’s eyes are as brown as the coffee at his family’s market. The taste of his mouth as they kiss hello is tangy and sweet, like the lulo fruit he blended for her into frothy jugo. The Colombian food is still new, like the toasted corn arepas and steamy infusions of herbs and flowers they drink in the afternoons.
“Echar los perros,” he whispers in her ear as she leans forward over the stone parapet, dizzied by the winds blowing up from the Bogotá savannah. “Release the dogs,” he translates when she tilts her head. Soon, she comes to learn its meaning. Let’s throw caution to the wind. Let’s be together. Let’s try. Let’s go.
About the Author: A Detroit native and Seattle resident, Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of “CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey.”
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