Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A sobering look at the city

A friend of mine from Ottawa was visiting the city last week. I said that I would be happy to show him some of the sights. Having lived in this city for 22 years, I have witnessed a lot of changes. The city has gone from being a rough and dangerous place with practically no tourism infrastructure, to something of a cultural and gastronomic mecca in Latin America. There is a lot to see and do in Bogota, and I am proud to show off my adopted city.

My friend decided on this trip to Bogota as a last minute decision and didn't have much of an idea what to expect. A week before he arrived, I sent him my list of Things To Do, See, and Eat in Bogota, to give him some ideas. I explained how to take a registered taxi at the airport. I also mentioned that there have been some excellent airfares to Cartagena, and a weekend getaway to the Caribbean would make a nice complement to the Bogota visit, or perhaps a few days in Villa de Leyva. He is a writer and Villa de Leyva strikes me as the ideal place to go for some peace and quiet, to simply soak in the lovely colonial atmosphere, and maybe get some writing done.

I don't think he read anything I sent. From the airport he took an unmarked black taxi on the street. The driver charged him 40,000 pesos to his hotel near Bulevar Niza, and claimed that he did not have change for the 50,000-peso bill.

One of the first things that quickly became apparent to him is that traffic in Bogota is Hell. We know that. We live here. But for someone coming from outside, it was a bit of a shock. I tried to explain how to use the Transmilenio system, because his hotel was near a station, but he never really got it figured out.

He did make it downtown on Transmilenio one day in an attempt to go to the Gold Museum. He got off at the Museo del Oro stop, but from the station you can't actually see the museum, which is right there. He started walking, straight down Jimenez Avenue. He walked for about an hour and a half, finally calling me on a cell phone rented from a guy selling minutes on the street near the Carrera 43 Transmilenio stop, deep in the industrial zone. He said that he started walking and figured that he would eventually find the museum, but after an hour, and having passed the homeless people huddled around their bonfires in the darkened doorways, he realized that he must have gone the wrong way. In all, during his stay no less than three taxi drivers charged him double the correct fare, but at least he was not taken on an express kidnapping. He found traffic in the city to be horrendous, and the people not very helpful. Of course he barely speaks the language, and that was a huge impediment.

The trip was not a complete failure. I took him to the Botero Museum, Plaza Bolivar, the San Agustin Church on Calle 6, walking in the Candelaria, the Gold Museum, Andrés Carne de Res, Crepes and Waffles, and the handicraft market in Usaquén. But he never went to Monserrate because the weather was poor, the Botanical Gardens, or out to a salsa club. I had suggested a hike but he suffers from back pain and it quickly become apparent that that would not be a good idea.

I wish he had seen the tropical loveliness Cartagena. I wish he had seen the grace and elegance of Villa de Leyva and the rolling Boyaca countryside. I wish he were taking away a different image of the city of Bogota. But maybe his meandering made for a more authentic trip. We who live here deal learn to deal with devious taxi drivers, the chaos in the city, and the interminable rain (at least this time of year). But we also see the city at its best, during its times of celebration. But for all that it has improved, I wonder, can Bogota be considered an international travel destination?

P.S. Despite his mishaps, my friend says that he really enjoyed his trip, and he wrote some lovely things about the city.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If I ever visit Bogota, I promise to read your directions explicitly.