When in Columbia do as the Columbians do, but there will be consequences.
The overnight bus journey is a challenge as always. The vehicle air conditioning system is all over the place; I cover myself with my jacket at one point, only to wake an hour later overheating. We roll into Bogota in the early morning, and end up sleeping in the TV room at the hostel while we wait for our beds to become available.
We check in properly after lunch then go in search of the legendary graffiti tour. The city has quite a reputation for its street art. Our guide does a great job of explaining the stories behind the various pieces. He states that the city has a tolerant approach towards its street artists, allowing them to be more creative. When it wraps up, we join others from the tour for a bite to eat, and loose plans are made for the evening ahead.
Ilya and I hit the streets as darkness falls. We wander through the crowds admiring the graffiti and trying not to look like tourists. The cobbled laneways are busy with musicians warming up for the weekend. Groups of students wearing worn leather jackets gather in doorways and under staircases sharing hip flasks and cigarettes. Streetlamps cast a yellow glare into the quickening twilight as we sip cerveza from plastic cups. The atmosphere is festive but remains edgy. There are occasional groups of youths that look like they are ready to start a fight, but the patrolling police appear to keep a lid on things. Ilya mentions some European DJs playing at one of the more obscure clubs around town. We meet up with some of our friends from the graffiti tour and find a cab.
The club is further away than expected, and when we exit the taxi, everyone appears unsure of our new neighbourhood. It’s still early, so we decide to go to a nearby bar hoping that the drink prices will be gentle on the travel budget. It’s packed with locals, and most are much older than us. We receive a few funny looks as we find some spare seating tucked away in the corner.
The Latin beats play on regardless, and before long the ladies in the group have been approached for a spin on the dancefloor. Within half an hour, everyone has at least one Salsa under their belt. We soon have several new drinking buddies and have abandoned our conservative seating arrangement. We end up leaving much later than planned. It is one of those unexpected experiences you sometimes have when you travel. When you are able to step into another culture for a brief moment in time.
The club is just down the street, and it’s built in a rambling warehouse with multiple confusing hallways and rooms. The main dancefloor is on the rooftop and is already quite busy with a diverse crowd and well-represented gay contingent. The music policy is also slightly less mainstream but has enough juice to keep those on the dancefloor interested. As the night progresses, I’m coming to know a few of our new friends a little better. Chris from London proves to be an absolute gem, and over the course of the evening, I warm to his eccentric comments. His form on the dancefloor is also entertaining. I’ve never seen such an array of crazy dance moves delivered with such poise and commitment. We end up leaving late but manage to get back to our various hostels before daylight.
Dragging myself out of my bed is not easy, but we’ve planned to visit a popular lookout after lunch. We are all still feeling hungover as we make our way to the cable car for the trip up the mountain. A local guy has gathered a small group of donkeys available for tourists to ride. Chris dashes off in their direction and screams back over his shoulder, “I’ll see you guys in Bethlehem”.
The view from the lookout is amazing and allows you to appreciate just how large Bogota really is. The city stretches out below like a worn multicoloured carpet. As we walk back towards our hostel, I stop in at a restaurant for a bowl of soup then retire for an afternoon nap.
It’s Saturday evening, and we meet in a nearby bar before heading to another club. The line to get in stretches along the dusty bitumen outside. As we take our place towards the end, the entry seems to exist somewhere over the distant horizon. An enterprising lad selling cerveza assists us in remaining relaxed. As the line gradually begins to move, I get talking to a girl from Seattle. We have both done a lot of travelling in recent times, and we’re deep in discussion as we approach the club entrance.
The main room is packed. Lasers beam through air thick with smoke and perspiration. Finding space amongst the dancefloor maelstrom isn't easy, so the decision to begin the search for pills is a simple one. I corner a few pasty wide-eyed types and am pointed through to a side room. A serious looking individual has taken up residence in the corner, and the transaction is a perfect example of adaptive capitalism. A thin roll of local dollars is efficiently exchanged for the requested number of Es.
I wander back into the main room and manage to find my friend from Seattle. I receive my first unrestrained smile from her direction, as I offer her one of the pills, and swallow one myself. I can feel myself grinning through the dirty chemical aftertaste as strobe lights flash and the atmosphere builds along with the music. There is a sea of hands in the air as the DJ revs up the crowd and the bassline thunders back in.
A few hours later, I am nestled into some side room seating with Miss Seattle. Our sweaty palms are clasped tightly together, and we are in earnest discussion. Everything feels warm and fuzzy, and the world exists through a lens of sparkling wellbeing. I gaze at the light sheen of perspiration on her brow and into the quiet of her eyes. Her pupils have dilated to the size of small dinner plates; they are like perfect dark tunnels that travel inwards to the depths of her soul.
We make it back out onto the dancefloor as it’s getting later. The early hours have always been my preferred time to get amongst it for a boogie. The posers and drinkers have long since gone home, the DJ has usually dispensed with the commercial crowd-pleasers and is unleashing driving tribal sounds. Those who remain are under the influence of various industrial stimulants. Jaws grind. The bassline is relentless. There is a collective will to keep the party going.
Tiredness eventually sets in, and a group of us go in search of a taxi back to the hostel. The streets of Bogota are deserted, but the dark alleyways and shifting shadows still feel mildly threatening. My chat with Miss Seattle continues. She has a single room back at the hostel, and I make some polite inquiries about joining her. She smiles and claims that she needs to sleep, but then adds that I should ask her again tomorrow night. Her reply is disappointing, but I’m pretty tired as well. I would rather wait than have Mr Floppy from Mancora make a dreaded return.
I doze through until after lunch. I’m just heading out for some food when I hear raised voices coming from the hostel bar area. I pop my head in, and the space is full of Aussies and Kiwis. Last night’s party is obviously still in full swing. The responsible voice in the back of my mind mentions something about getting more sleep and aiming to be in decent shape for later. I hesitate, then figure if I take it easy, everything will work out ok.
I happily join the gathering. A fresh bottle of rum is purchased, and I’m soon doing business with Jose the drug dealer. I’m not on first name terms with anyone but happily mingle and chat. There are a couple of guys from the UK also involved, but the Aussies and the Kiwis are making the most noise. Stories of the previous evening abound. There’s a lengthy debate about which South American country has the best cocaine. Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia all got favourable mentions, but we are unable to reach a firm consensus. I notice one guy tapping white powder into his beer, and I look at him quizzically, “I’m starting to get nosebleeds”, he responds.
There is some fairly messy behaviour as the afternoon wears on. One of the Aussie lads begins recounting a travel tale in a raucous voice. His friend openly disputes his version of events and a good-natured argument turns into a scuffle. Tables and chairs go skidding across the tiles, and the hostel manager is soon nearby, wringing his hands and looking concerned. The wider group rallies together and smooths it over. Everyone puts on a sober face as they return to more restrained conversations.
A round of poker morphs dangerously into a drinking game, and the trashy Australians are once again at fault. One of the lads has the cards go badly against him. His options are to skull a large glass of rum or do a naked dash through the bar. He is soon doing laps of the room while trying to smack his tackle into shocked bystanders. Hostel management is again hovering and there is another wider attempt to settle things down, but it is getting far less organised. The group has descended into a drunken rabble.
As early evening approaches, things are getting hazy. I’ve been in touch with Miss Seattle on the messages, but I should’ve been honest with myself. It had all gone too far. It would have been smart to cancel our plans and drink lots of water then go to bed. But smart just hasn’t been my thing in recent days, so I tell her to come and meet me at the hostel bar. Unfortunately the place is a mess, there’s a sea of empty beer bottles strewn across the table, and the floor is sticky with spilled drink. It has the feel of a nightclub early Sunday morning before the cleaning staff have entered the premises. The scent of hard liquor and unwashed men hangs in the air like a stale cloud.
I’m in the process of telling one of my own travel tales when Miss Seattle walks in. She stops mid stride, and glances around in obvious distaste. When her eyes settle on me, all I can see is mild contempt. I try to make light of the situation; I wave at the empty bottles and mention that we’ve been collecting them for recycling. There is a desperate hopefulness in my voice when I invite her to stay for a drink. She firmly declines, and I end up following her out onto the street.
As we face each other, her expression changes to one of disappointment. It appears she is having some regrets, and I am just about to explain myself when she states flatly... “There's coke running out of your nose”. I quickly wipe it away with my sleeve then mention that maybe we should grab a drink elsewhere. She looks at me again; this time with something approaching pity. “No, I don't think we will be going anywhere for a drink”. She turns and walks away, and I am left standing there alone. There is cocaine still running out of my nose.
I struggle through the next few days and am still recovering when I head to the airport departure lounge. After over six months in South America, I should have been basking in broadened horizons. Instead, I was feeling strung out and listless. I arrive in Australia after over 50 hours of exhausting travel. Australian customs see me coming from a mile away….
“Your passport indicates you departed from Colombia? This way please sir.”
My bags were emptied over the inspection counter in short order. A few minutes later...
“Sir, every piece of your luggage we have analysed so far has tested positive for cocaine.”
I’m tired beyond caring and can’t be bothered lying... “Yeah, I spent most of the last six months living in hostels. There was lots of partying going on”.
The customs official stares at me intently… “Sir, if we keep searching, are we likely to find any?”
I return the stare. “No. I made sure I took everything I had before I boarded the flight home”.
I walk out of the airport a short time later.
The writing above is an excerpt from a recently published book…
Eyes To The Horizon
One man’s psychedelic journey into dating apps and perfect waves on foreign shores
Written by Ben Simon Smith
Available on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and with other good eBook retailers