“Welcome to Bogotá!”
Felipe shouted, joyfully, as we raced over yet another gaping hole in the road. His words were almost whipped from his mouth by the wind; I held on tighter to the back of his leather jacket, and scanned the streets for unseen graffiti as we turned up yet another side street.
If you’d told me a few months ago that I’d be riding around Colombia’s capital on the back of a motorbike with a guy I barely knew – and living in his house – I’d have laughed. But travel often throws you the most unexpected situations, and it’s totally up to you to embrace them.
“I want that you have the best time ever here!”
I met Felipe on the beach in Ecuador, during a Easter weekend filled with craziness. We only chatted for a few hours but ended up friends on Facebook, and I soon had an invitation to hang out in Bogotá if I ever made it to Felipe’s home city.
In typical British fashion, I just assumed we’d meet up when I arrived in Bogotá; but Felipe is Colombian, a native of the friendliest country I’ve ever been to, and when I told him I was taking Spanish classes at Nueva Lengua while in Bogotá, he insisted I stay with him.
“Mi casa es tu casa!” Felipe typed, repeatedly, when I expressed the tiniest amount of doubt in our message thread (which was being entirely conducted in Spanish by the way, in my efforts to get some practice in). I haven’t Couchsurfed yet, and most of my trip in South America thus far has been spent staying in hostels or with people I already knew. Living with a stranger for a week was an entirely new experience.
But what else is travel for but taking a chance on your gut feeling? Particularly when it’s screaming, “just do it already!!”
Which is why I arrived at Bogotá airport to a sign with my name on, and was driven in a pre-booked taxi to Felipe’s apartment. “This is your house,” he proclaimed, after a welcoming hug, a tour around his ridiculously cool apartment, and a loan of his spare set of keys.
And for the next eight days, it pretty much was.
Getting comfortable in Bogotá
Almost immediately, we established a pattern to our days. After cooking breakfast together in the apartment – usually eggs or arepas, with a hefty amount of strong, fresh coffee – Felipe would leave for work at his flower business. I’d lock the front door fifteen minutes later and head off to catch the TransMillenio metro to Spanish class with the other commuters.
Now, while I’d never say I missed the horrors of a crowded London tube at rush hour, there was something really satisfying about feeling like I had a purpose in Bogotá; a role to be played that wasn’t just ‘vaguely wandering tourist’. And I really relished not being stared at like a foreigner for the first time in a long while!
When classes finished in the afternoon, I’d head back to the apartment, say ‘hola!’ to the doorman, and get some work done until Felipe came home at about 4pm. Then it was Bogotá time – but not the way that other tourists usually see this city.
Living with Felipe offered a wonderfully unique viewpoint: the chance to see Colombia’s capital through the eyes of a local.
I started to realise that, for a week at least, I could let myself relax into a normal, city-living lifestyle. While in Bogotá, things were almost too good to be true. An awesome apartment, a wonderful host, a ready-made group of friends to hang out with, and this incredible city laid out at my fingertips, just begging to be explored!
So Felipe and I took on the challenge, and endeavoured to do just that.
Being kicked (gently) out of my comfort zone
First up was meeting the group of people I’d end up spending a lot of time with: a selection of Felipe’s closest friends. And what better way to do so than through a nice, easy game of indoor football?
Yep, you heard that right. Flora – the unsporty, the uncoordinated, the thrice-broken-toed – being subjected to sixty minutes of trying to kick a ball around on artificial grass. But it’s Felipe’s usual Monday evening pastime, and I wasn’t about to say no.
And after the first few minutes of terror, I realised there was actually quite a lot of fun involved. Particularly when every one of his friends kept passing me the ball and congratulating the most pathetic of kicks. Seriously, these guys were all support and enthusiasm.
It kept going throughout the week, too; the same enthusiasm, and the same introductions to activities I never thought I’d try. Why else would I find myself sat astride a polo horse on a wide open field under a brooding Colombian sky on a Sunday morning?
And why, too, would I ever be sitting in the audience of a town meeting in the small pueblo of La Calera, watching Felipe’s friend Alejandro give a speech about the importance of cooking – particularly on a day when I expected nothing more than a brief tour of the city?
But Felipe and his friends were always throwing me these kinds of experiences. So I sipped spoonfuls of sugarcane soup and ate fresh arepas in La Calera while discussing cooking with chef Alejo one afternoon, visited the finca he plans to renovate into a restaurant, and taste tested pretty much every herb, fruit and flower in his garden – all destined to be ingredients in his kitchen.
Sampling the Bogotá eating scene
As if I hadn’t already guessed from Felipe’s career as an exporter of Colombia’s famous roses, the careers of his friends are equally cool.
From chefs to graffiti experts and designers to artists, they all spend their time hanging out in the quirkiest spots in the city – like Andre’s Carne de Res, without a doubt the weirdest restaurant I’ve ever been to.
The place is actually less restaurant and more a kind of food Disneyland; a sprawling complex of colour and noise, the eye constantly pulled every which way by never ending decorations (all made by hand), and a cast of extrovert actors, musicians and wait staff weaving between the tightly packed tables.
It was also a place where I couldn’t stop staring at absolutely everything. Even after the impromptu serenade from a musical troupe and the presentation of a giant platter of sizzling meat at our table, I was still taking photos.
Even on our way out, when Felipe was basically dragging me and my camera through the wonderfully decorated door, the gratuitously placed baskets of fresh strawberries scattered around were very much appreciated.
Throughout the week, we also indulged in ridiculously tasty burgers at Burger Kill, had a fondue party, created crazy concoctions of red wine, Coca Cola and fruit juice, and even drank tequila shots served in a half tomato – the group’s very own creation. Never say Colombians don’t enjoy experimenting.
The best part about it all, though, was feeling part of a group again. Since saying goodbye to my Ecuador friends, I’d gone back to the solo mentality; something I’m used to, and can handle, but it’s always lovely to be able to fit myself seamlessly into a new group, with old established friendships.
In fact, the only difference from hanging out with my friends at home was Felipe’s stipulation that I speak Spanish as much as possible – and his friends were given the same command. It was an agreement we made when I first arrived, and was something that helped my language skills no end.
Despite sounding a bit ridiculous when I’d had a few too many tequila tomatoes.
Getting the inside scoop on Bogotá’s graffiti
One of Felipe’s good friends (confusingly also called Felipe) quickly became my graffiti guru; educating me on the infamous Bogotá graffiti scene, which he’s intrinsically involved in.
We drove around the city as he pointed out every possible piece of guerrilla art on walls, doors, hiding around electricity pylons and poking through the cracks in advertisements, all the while explaining the struggles and breakthrough moments for various artists.
Sometimes we even caught them in the act.
And the crowning moment came when Graffiti Felipe ushered me into a closet in his apartment to reveal the stencil cutting board belonging to his friend Stinkfish, a Colombian graffiti artist and the master behind some of my favourite pieces around the world – including one that inspired my most recent tattoo.
Bogota’s weekly ‘Cycle Sunday’
But most importantly, my whole week in Bogotá was tied together by bikes. Almost every day, Felipe and I would spend some time on his motorbike – whether heading to the supermarket for cooking supplies, or for endless wonderful hours of zooming through the city on our own personal tour.
All too soon, we reached my last day in the city – but it just so happened to be a Sunday, when the entire city willingly hands over the use of its major road network to cyclists, joggers and dog walkers from 8am to 2pm. Alejo lent me a spare bike, Felipe treated us to breakfast empanadas, and the three of us spent six hours cycling the length and breadth of the cycle-friendly city.
It was the absolute best way to explore Bogotá, and I felt like I’d really seen a huge part of it. And as we cycled, Felipe mentioned more than a few times that he’d only recently started exploring this much of the city.
Since Uribe became president in 2002, things started to get a bit better in Bogotá – and it feels as if Felipe and his friends have just begun a process of rediscovering their city, now the dangerous period begins to dissipate.
A Colombian childhood, take two
I haven’t grown up in a place where it’s dangerous to walk alone at night. Or where areas are strictly off limits at any time of day. In fact, throughout my childhood, I’ve only known there are particular activities I’d normally choose not to partake in – like riding horses, or playing football – simply because I don’t feel comfortable doing them.
But maybe that’s why Felipe and his friends kept pulling me from my comfort zone with those exact same things. They’ve been relishing in a newly safe city with all the things that go alongside it – and they knew I just needed a bit of a push, and a touch of enthusiasm.
And it worked; these little pushes consistently built themselves up into something much bigger.
Cycling the city on closed roads led to zooming alongside fast cars and buses on a pushbike with no helmet; and my first attempt at playing an electronic drum kit (for three hours straight!) in a fifth floor apartment led to spontaneous jamming sessions with Alejo on piano and his musician dad on electric guitar.
And as for my repeated exclamations at bizarre foodstuffs and awesome city graffiti throughout the week?
Well, my last ten minutes in Felipe’s apartment involved being dared to eat an infamous Colombian “giant assed” ant, and being handed a collection of aerosol cans to add my own mark to his wall of ever-changing graffiti.
New friends, old friendships
Normally, I’d find it hard to believe that this is a typical week for someone – but in Colombia, I get the sense that it’s very likely. My week in Bogotá made me miss my life in London in a way I haven’t for a long time – I miss the easiness with a group of friends you’ve known for years, the familiar things you do and the places you go.
But at the same time, discovering this same lifestyle in the middle of South America with a guy I met on the beach also made me incredibly happy. I’m finding there are always people willing to involve you in their lives, even if it’s just for a few days.
Colombia’s capital will always hold a special place for me. Quite apart from spending a week with the fantastic tour guide, ruthless Spanish teacher, impromptu drumming instructor and kindred spirit that is my friend Felipe, Bogotá is also a place where I let myself go, and actively allowed myself the option of being open to every possibility.
While we rode our bikes, Felipe reiterated why his motorbike was so integral to his life in Bogotá; the cheapness of the gas, the ability to cut through the traffic, the awareness of how the city works on a much more personal level because you’re always thinking about how to better get yourself around it.
The freedom to go wherever you want.
Which is why I’ll always think of Bogotá as a spider’s web of graffiti covered streets peppered with skyscrapers; viewed from the breathless backseat of a black motorbike, warm in a borrowed jacket, weaving quickly through the incessant traffic. Free, fast, and happy.