I find myself alone a lot these days. It’s odd to live in a place where I can’t simply go somewhere and know that I will have a friend tooling around, willing to waste time with me. It’s a transition I’m still dealing with. However, I’ve always though of myself as socially resilient, with the ability to fit into most any social situation I’m presented with. So with this in mind, I push out into the Colombian night. I walk to the alimentador stop – the bus that takes me to the station – and wrap the excess end of my headphones around my phone, slipping the phone down the neck of my shirt, out the bottom, and into my securely zipped purse. The buds in my ears lend an intense vibration to my brain. I’ll admit, my music tastes have gotten a little darker in the past few weeks. I don’t find the same sort of comfort in the terrible pop music as I did back home. My soul craves more. It takes me about 30 minutes to wait for the alimentador and ride to the Transmilenio station I frequent – Portal Norte. With a brief glance at the system map, I get in line for the H13 to Calle 22. I had spent the early evening online searching for some sort of quirky artistic cafe to go read a book at. The test spot tonight was a place called A Seis Manos. I wasn’t positive on exactly where the place was, but I had a vague idea and all city are grids anyway, right? I was sure I could figure it out.
I had invited a couple of the very few friends I had in Bogota to join my excursion. These were the volunteers who I had spent an intense few weeks with at orientation in the mountains at the outset of my Colombian adventure. It seemed the longer we were out of orientation, the further they drifted away. Bogota was a big city, after all, it was difficult to maintain any amount of quality time. When it comes to my placement, I’m so far away from anybody that it’s three hours dedicated to travel time overall to see anybody. So when I found this cafe that would take all of us about an equal amount of time to reach I thought perhaps this was the perfect Friday plan. Unfortunately I could’t get anybody on board. Most of them were sticking around their areas of town, not looking forward to a lengthy Transmilenio ride. I didn’t blame them. Transmilenio isn’t typically a pleasant time. My saving grace is that I’m getting on at the end of the line and so I usually get a seat and don’t have to deal with the pressing anxious bodies of strangers.
In my seat I watch the city pass by. The buildings crumbling and streets pitted. The excess of signs advertising words I hardly understood. Overpasses and underpasses and people, so many people and nobody that I knew. Every now and then a building with the colonial style red clay roofs, with small black trimmed windows and white worn walls. This was an old city. A city built upon and built upon. So much history, but little of it evident.
When the red digital words scrolled across the ceiling of the bus for Calle 22, I stood and pushed my way for the door. People with passive faces didn’t move until I forced my way past them. I made it onto the platform of the small stop and followed the exit signs to the street where I was left in the middle of an intersection unsure of which direction to turn. Of the two options, one direction looked busier than the other so I set my head down and walked for it, dodging traffic as I crossed. I mostly watched my feet avoid potholes while I walked down the sidewalk and occasionally glanced into the businesses to my right to see if any of them looked like artsy cafes. They definitely did not. About halfway down a block I stopped and looked around myself. The sight that I took in was not promising. Leaning against various doorways and standing tall at the curbs, the street was lined with women in skimpy spandex two pieces and far too much fishnet – although, I’m pretty sure a lot of them weren’t women. I had obviously accidentally stumbled into the red light district of Bogota.
To ease my nerves I stepped into the nearest cigarreria and purchased a single cigarette off the cashier. Act natural, I told myself as I left the store and dragged on the tobacco. I stood with my shoulders straight and tried to swagger my step a little. First rule when you’re lost in Bogota – act like you know exactly where you are and where you’re going, even if you don’t. They trouble comes when you look like a lost tourist. I was hoping my ripped PBR t-shirt and faded black jeggings would at least take me out of the rich gringo category. Then the thought that, even if I did end up getting jumped or robbed, I didn’t actually own anything of value calmed me down. I reached the end of the block and crossed the street to walk up the opposite side back towards the bus station. At the corner a man yelled something in my direction and I heard him say something about a gringa. I sped my feet up and kept a straight face. The block went by quickly and I was back at the intersection that the bus had dropped me off at.
I briefly considered getting back on the bus and going home, but I was positive I was super close to the place I had set out to visit. I looked to the direction I had turned away from the first time. The street looked abandoned and there were piles of rubble on the sidewalk. Fuck it, I thought. I crossed the street and walked towards the emptiness. Most of the streetlights were broken or burnt out. I followed a safe looking elderly gentleman a little too close on the sidewalk. He looked back at me with a look of confusion. I backed off. After about three blocks with no change of scenery I started getting anxious. Then another half block and a busy street lined with lit businesses popped up. I practically skipped toward it and read the signs. I was about a block away from my destination and the scenery was feeling a lot friendlier. Another couple minutes on the sidewalk and a hole in the wall with a chalk sign beside it claimed to be A Seis Manos. I leapt across the street to it with joy. Success.
Inside the establishment the lighting was dim and the art avant garde. Some of the walls were lined with bookshelves and there was a stage with a live jazz band. A wash of comfort slid down my body. I posted up on a stool at the bar and read through the menu. A dirty martini? Fuck yes. It had been weeks since I had even seen the word martini. The chick bartender with a short french-style haircut came over to me and took my order. I looked around to find myself surrounded by skinny jeans and thick-rimmed glasses. Not that I don’t appreciate the value of being steeped in different cultures – but this little taste of home felt like a godsend at that moment. I took my martini and explored the rest of the cafe. There was a patio-like room with an open roof that I decided to occupy and read a book in. Every few minutes I looked up towards the stars and stopped to listen to the music coming from the other room. The people around me chattered away in Spanish. Even though I wasn’t participating in the social atmosphere, it was nice to be in it.
By the time I decided to go home, the streets didn’t seem so scary and the night felt like a success. I’d even gotten thirty pages through the Sartre novel I was working on. This small and silly but memorable solo adventure just reminded me that even in a foreign space, it’s not impossible to find familiarity. I walked into the abandoned streets towards the bus with a newfound confidence.