On approach I peer out the window of the plane and get a look at the city. Bogotá. I track the roads as they dissect the city into hundreds of squares, noting for no particular reason if those roads are brown, black or grey. I rehearse what I’ve learned under my breath: soy Miguel… como te llamas?… no hablo español… mas despacio, por favor… trying to conjure up some sort of inner positivity and optimism that I know will do nothing to make up for my non-existent Spanish. I want my mind to be ready and willing to speak this new language, but I can tell it’s stubbornly refusing to go along with it. It will see what it wants to see: the buildings it notices are similar to the ones it’s seen before, and the people who look different, or the same. We are always searching for likeness in this way, searching for something recognizable in a place unknown.
But it’s the smell that breaks this spell of denial. Once I’ve gone through customs and collected my bags and (breath) taken that definitive step out of airport’s sanctuary and into my new reality, Bogotá collides into my chest with a breeze laden with the scent of the forested mountains that surround the city, and the thousands of humans who live there — the odor of their lives coming in from every direction. Presented with these olfactory proofs of arrival, my mind finally experiences the visceral jolt of recognition it lacked moments before on the plane, on the tarmac and in the airport: I am in Colombia.
As I stop-go, stop-go into downtown Bogotá I peer into the cab next to me. An elderly woman is waving her hands and arms in the backseat, elaborating her insights to the driver as if he were her orchestra. He looks up at her through the rear-view mirror with a grin common to cabbies, his outward expression obvious enough, but actually hiding a truth he’ll tell no one until, finally, one day it will be lost forever to a memory obscured by the hundreds or thousands of people he’s taken one place to another in this city.
For a country constantly framed as dangerous and a city made out to be sinister, I see only affection on the streets. I’m sure there are myriad road-rages happening all around me, and no doubt someone’s just been murdered around the corner, but as I get deeper and deeper into the city I see couple after couple, standing on street corners and at bus stops, and gripped together on the motorcycles that weave in and out of traffic. Some walk with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists, and others are barely holding on by a finger or two, but they never part for as long as I can watch them from behind the cab’s greasy window. At a red light I spot a pair of moto-bound lovebirds as they dismount and say goodbye. Back on their feet, they bury themselves into each other.
From where I sit, pining for love myself in the equatorial heat of South America, it seems as if the world has fallen away from their lives.
In that instant, while they cling to their final moments together that day, or maybe forever, I can almost feel the chaotic clatter of the city subdued by their emotion. I wonder what he’s saying to her. His arms clutch her to him as if his world would fall away if he let go, and I imagine that all she can hear, so much louder than the ubiquitous construction and blaring car horns, is the whisper of his voice in her ear…
The cab lurches forward and they are pulled away from my imagination. In an effort to be disciplined I look down at the notebook in my lap and try and repeat a few conjugations… estoy, estas, esta, estamos, estan...
I want it all at once — the queasy fear of failure that will surface with every interaction, and then the flood of elation I’ll feel when I get it right. And finally, I want the contentment of knowing a place in the world just a little bit better, someplace far off brought that much closer into the wide scope of my life and the frame of who I am.
I want these next few months to mean something.
The cabbie pulls over and glances at me in the rear-view mirror. “Hemos llagado,” he says.
What did he say?