Return to the USA: Bogota to Orlando

As my time with Jessica was finishing up, I started thinking of what I’d do next.  The plan was to continue South to Ecuador, maybe even Peru.  But that was a lot of mountain, and I wasn’t really pumped about it.  After 6 months of cycling, it was all becoming the same.  A new place wasn’t all that exciting anymore.

I looked at return flights to the US from Bogota and compared it against leaving from other major cities that I might be passing through, like Quito and Lima.  One-way flights from other South American cities were ~$500.  But I found flights from Bogota to Orlando on Jetblue for $80!!  And this was a flight that was only a week away.  That’s the bargain basement price of Destiny.

It was a relief to know my trip was over.  I’d had enough.

Getting a cardboard bike box in Bogota was harder than I thought.  I went to the Bicycle Shop part of town (that’s how Bogota was set up — all the shops of a certain type were in one part of town), and asked for a box at every store, but nobody had one, or they were too stingy with their boxes.  In the US, bike shops want to give them away.  One store had a box that was fit for a smaller bike and they wanted to charge me for it.  An option of one choice.  Then I had to walk it back a couple miles to the hostel.

Jetblue charged me for bringing the boxed bike.  I think it was $50.

On September 1, 2009, I flew into Orlando, back to  the US.  My mom lives in Tampa and my plan was to surprise her, so I didn’t tell her I was coming back.  So, my ride out of the airport was my bike.  I had to put it back together.

I got a pretty good amount of attention for re-assembling my bike by baggage claim, but not many people asked what I was doing; mostly just stares.  One couple, who were in town to visit Disney World, asked where I had biked to.  I told them Colombia.  “Columbia, South Carolina!”

Bogota: Jessica’s Visit

I think it was when I was in Costa Rica that Jessica started talking to me about visiting me in Bogota. It was hard to estimate how much time I would need to get there, so that she could buy a flight with enough time in advance. And Jessica struggled with the safety issue. Her parents freaked out — since Colombia’s had a bad history, they assumed it was still a war zone. After lots of consideration, Jessica decided to just do it. We set the date, and she bought the ticket. I was pumped.

I had busted my ass riding through Colombia to get to Bogota in time to meet her when she arrived. I did lots of over-80-mile days, and a few 100-mile ones. I didn’t want the possibility of not being there when she arrived.

Before I took the bus out to meet her at the airport, I bought a mango as a welcoming gift. Mangoes were kind of a symbol for me — an exotic, sweet treat that was a rarity in my old life, but I’d been able to find on the side of the road on this trip.

I waited at arrivals with a lot of anticipation. When I saw Jessica, it was unreal! An old friend in a foreign country — now an International friend. It was a great moment for both of us.

We took a taxi back to the hostel, and Jessica wanted to take a quick look around before going to bed. We stepped into a small convenience store that had tables and chairs set up, and ordered a couple of beers. An old man came up and greeted us. He laid out an essay he’d written, and then returned to his table. He was a professor, and his paper was written in Spanish. I took a quick look and couldn’t read it but when he returned, I congratulated him on it. The professor’s mind was weird — he was all over the place. The store keeper yelled at him to not bother us anymore — the professor took his essay and recoiled into his lonely corner.

It was great to have Jessica around so that I could take some time off my bike tour. It was like a vacation from this year-long journey of not working. We toured the city seeing lots of sites and having treats along the way.

We did have some conflict though. When we were looking for a place to eat for dinner, we were in a ritzy part of town. The prices were around $10 per meal — cheap by American standards, but I’d gotten used to Colombian prices. I resisted those places and assured her we could find somewhere better. But we didn’t, and she got frustrated. Jessica said she wanted to enjoy herself and just spend some money on a nice place — “It’s my vacation!” I felt bad, and cheap, but I realized later … “Hey, it’s my bike tour!” I was on a budget and got used to a certain style of living. I probably shouldn’t have been difficult, and the prices weren’t really that bad, but it had been a while since I’d had to compromise.

We reconnected over jugoes naturales, “spreadables” (wafer sandwich of arequipe (caramel), blackberry, and more!), and native hot chocolate. And Jessica and I got out of the city one day. We took a day trip to a village outside of Bogota where there were hot springs. On the bus, a Colombian took an interest in us, and spoke really good English — he turned out to be an English teacher. We hung out with him, and when we arrived in his village, he treated us to a classically Colombian lunch; I just remember a lot of meat — I usually finish meals but it was too much, and kind of gross. Our Colombian friend brought us to his house, which was right across from the hot springs. We had a tour of his house, and he told us that if we wanted, we could stay the night. Readers may think it sounds creepy, but he was genuine and kind. There is nothing sweeter than a stranger’s kindness.

Jessica and I left our friend to go to the hot springs, but it turned out to be disappointing — a developed facility that catered mostly to old people. And it was expensive. We opted out. We had gotten an authentic experience instead.

Being together for over a week took it’s toll though. Our relationship definitely had highs and lows. I want to remember a few of the lows.

As we were walking through an underground bus transfer station, Jessica was taking some photos. A security guard gave her a stern look and a wag of the finger. I thought it was stupid and I wanted to support Jessica’s side on it, so I scoffed at it as we walked on. Jessica cut me off immediately — “Don’t make that face! You’re so skeptical of everything, Eoin!”

Jessica did a great job of documenting the trip. She had her camera out a lot of the time. On the few occasions I was in a shot of a street scene, I gave a corny peace sign. Just having fun. Being lame. Kind of a call-back to times with Ryan. This will come up later.

One night when we were looking for a place to eat, Jessica spotted a place that served soup. I don’t really like soup because it doesn’t offer a lot of food bulk — I like low price, high volume. I didn’t really want to eat there, but I was indecisive. Jessica called me out and said “Lighten up! Let’s just eat here.” I was offended because it seemed like a rude comment, so I told her, and that led to a heated session of letting out our frustrations. One complaint she had was that I was being disrespectful of her photos by always doing that stupid peace sign. I hadn’t realized it, but it was definitely annoying. Jessica and I let it all out and then we made up. Reaffirmation. Although it was a negative time, I felt a lot closer to her afterward than I had before. Bonding through conflict.

Although Jessica didn’t want to CouchSurf, we met up with Julian and his friends a few times. We also attended a couple of CouchSurfing meet-ups. One was for practicing English speaking. We could do that! By the end of it, Jessica had a crowd of Colombian guys gathered around her, enthralled. It was bizarre, and there were a couple of creeps in the mix. The other CouchSurfing meet-up was to attend this seemingly traditional Bull Fighting event. It was strange though. The shape of a bull was traced with gasoline and set on fire. Then after it had burned out, a guy came out with a broom and swept the sand along that tracing. All he did was sweep in that same loop. Countless times and there was no sign of him stopping after about 30 minutes. People started leaving, so we did the same. Performance art gone wrong — does it ever go right?

Bogota: Julian and Falkon

My CouchSurfing host in Bogota, Julian, preferred to go by Falkon. He told me that he used to be a professional gamer and Falkon was his gaming name.

Falkon’s apartment was great. It definitely looked like a bachelor pad — guitars, video games, big tv, sound system.  I feel like there should have been a glass-top table somewhere. Falkon also had a spare bedroom; he said his roommate had just moved out and that I could sleep in there. 🙂

I enjoyed hanging out with Falkon and doing regular things for a few days — including playing Rock Band! ;P Whenever we got food, a drink, or a taxi, he insisted on paying. When I tried to chip in, he’d say, “But you’re my guest.” As a fellow guy, it feels weird saying it, but Falkon is a Sweet Guy. He even treated me to a Strawberry Shish Kabob dipped in White Chocolate! I got him back though; I treated him to McDonald’s. Apparently in Colombia, McDonald’s is a nice restaurant — kind of fancy and different. McDonald’s would even be considered a pretty good place for a date.

Falkon told me about how his last CS guest, Hali, and his old roommate, Carlos, fell in love. Hali, who’s from New Zealand, arrived with her big personality. Colorful clothes and bright pink hair — a modern day Punky Bruster. Carlos was charmed by her, and soon CouchSurfing became a serious, romantic affair.

Hali came by to hang out when Falkon’s other CS guest, Meredith, arrived. Meredith was a Plain Jane from the Boston area. She had spent some time “living” in Buenos Aires (people love saying that they “lived abroad”) and she’s a vegetarian. Buenos Aires is the Beef Capital of the World. If you’re vegetarian in Buenos Aires, you’re missing out on Culture — you need to relax your rules if you go there.

Meredith told us about how she lost her ATM card and that she was running out of money. This sounded like bad news to me. She also seemed pretty sloppy — not a good mix with super-neat Falkon. Lazy Meredith slopping around on the couch all day moping about being broke. I heard later from Falkon that he had treated her to lots of meals and she didn’t show too much gratitude. Falkon got tired of her sloppiness and he finally had to ask her to leave. Loser CouchSurfer.

Two Notable Moments with Hali:

  • She felt the urge to let me know that she has no interest in visiting the United States.
  • Although my Spanish is pretty pathetic, she was helpless. When Hali and I were in a shop, she wanted to buy some jewelry, so I helped her bargain for a better price. I got the storekeeper to drop the price a bit, and Hali bought it. As we left the store, Hali said, “If I had a real local helping me buy it, I would have gotten a much better price.”

Masculinity:

I noticed that masculinity is a little different in Colombia. Guys are more loving and caring with their guy friends. In the US, guys show affection to other guys by making fun of each other — bonding through bashing. Hali told me that when Carlos was living with Falkon, he would make Falkon breakfast each morning and bring it up to him in bed, and many times Carlos wouldn’t even eat. Guys in Colombia aren’t afraid to be sweet.

My Pathetic Clothes:


It was cold in Bogota since it’s up in the mountains. Being on a bike tour, my wardrobe was very limited, especially for cold weather. I wore the same damn maroon plaid shirt and black jeans every day. Falkon felt bad for me in my wrinkled shirt, and kept suggesting that I borrow some of his clothes. He was probably embarrassed of me — same-clothes American with patchy facial hair.

One night when we were going out, I was wearing the same tired maroon plaid shirt. Falkon told me I should take one of his sweaters since it would be cold. I put on a striped one that I thought would look cool, but when he saw me, he didn’t look pleased. Falkon suggested I get a different one. I complied, but I didn’t know why, so I asked. In private, Falkon looked at me with concern and said, “The colors clash.”

Bogota: Search for Accommodation

When I made it into Bogota, I went to find my CouchSurfing host’s place. I was attracted to FALKON’s profile since he seemed high-energy. I contacted him about a three-night stay, and he replied, “We’re gonna have a blast, mark my words!” Falkon instructed me that when I get to his place, I’ll need to tell the doorman that I’m there to see “Julian (you-lee-an… I know, sounds gay in English, just call me Falkon).” I got to his place way too early, at around 1pm. I had 8 hours to kill.

Jessica was arriving in a few days. She was freaking out about accommodation. She didn’t want to CouchSurf, and she wanted to reserve a private room in a hostel — no bunking in dorms. Jessica had been searching for rooms online and found that some of these places had no more availability. I told her it was fine; Bogota’s a huge city with lots of options. I’d be arriving in the city a few days before she was arriving so there’d be lots of time for me to find us a humble place without a web presence — which would be cheaper. That didn’t ease her mind. We agreed that she can make a reservation for a private room for the first night, and then we would go somewhere else, based on my findings.

So I decided to use this time before I met up with Falkon to look for accommodation. Getting around on my loaded bike attracted a lot of attention. A businessman stopped me on the street and asked me in English if I needed help. I asked about accommodation, and he had specific ideas on where I shouldn’t go. He seemed genuinely concerned for my safety — white freak with little Spanish-speaking ability — and got all hung up on finding me a map. He seemed deeply sorry that he didn’t have a map to give me; he spent a lot of time thinking of where we could walk together to get one, and spent more time drawing a crappy one out for me, as I kept trying to reassure him that I’d be fine. It’s a good example of how sweet Colombians are to tourists.

I found a couple of low-cost accommodation options. $10 per night for two lumpy beds in a private room and a shared bathroom without hot water; a TV with very limited channel selection would be a little extra. I liked it, but I had a disappointing feeling that the presentation wasn’t right for Jessica.

Knee pads and Roller blades

Killing time in a square, I asked some people where the nearest panaderia was. They corrected me on my pronunciation, followed up with some questions about my bike and where I was from, and after a while of talking, I was invited to hang out later, and to come to a party at the weekend. The loaded bike is a great conversation piece, and I feel like I’m a sociable, friendly guy. Later, I learned that I was in the gay section of town.

Cycling in Bogota

I found out that biking in Bogota is really dangerous. It’s mostly because of the buses. These bus collectivos seem to be privately owned — like some guy can buy an old bus, stick a sign on the front window with the destination, and start driving it. They don’t have official bus stops. Instead, if someone on the side of the road puts up his hand, the bus will swing over and stop to let him on — like how you’d hail a taxi. So, these buses were swinging all over the place as I was trying to bike. I had to heighten my awareness to stay operational. The roads were full of taxis too, and they’d be weaving to get around the buses that’d be swinging across the lanes to get to the sidewalk to pick up passengers.

Early on, I made some bold moves squeezing through narrow gaps between temporarily-stopped buses on my wide, fully-loaded bike. I would be holding my breath, a sign of me knowing I was being a dumbass. Then, at one point, I was out in one of the middle lanes making a move past a bus that was on my right, when the bus started pulling out to shift into my lane. I was pinned between a taxi that was tight on my left and the bus that was moving forward into the taxi’s lane. I made an emergency stop as the shock ran through my body. And the bus saw me and stopped moving. I waddled through the gap the bus left me, embarrassed about causing this scene in a place where I don’t understand the traffic culture. “Stupid … Not worth it, not worth it,” I kept repeating in my head. From then on, I dropped my bravado and got patient, staying all the way to the right, and waiting behind the buses that cut me off.

There are a lot of bike lanes on the sidewalks in Bogota, but pedestrians were always drifting in there making it a really slow, annoying stop-and-start for me, so I used the streets for cycling. Also, on Sundays, the city would close off a lot of the main roads for the Cyclovia, a weekly event where people would come out to cycle, rollerblade, run, or walk. It’s a great idea, but that’s only on Sunday — the rest of the week, you have to deal with the horrible traffic.

Ubate to Bogota (Colombia)

Getting into Bogota took forever. It stretches out so far that I was in the “outskirts” for a few hours. There were a few sections where I was on an interstate-like highway, but once I got in closer, there were bike lanes, and then a dedicated bike lane on the sidewalk. It turned out that the sidewalk bike lanes sucked since people were always walking in them, so I went back onto the road. But it was stressful on the road since it was jam packed with cars, and the cars switched lanes frequently. My awareness had to be at its peak.