Friday, August 28, 2009

Poker face in Bogota

When traveling, there are only two reasons a backpacker doesn`t go out to party at night in a city like Bogota: 1. He has no money. 2. He doesn`t want to get mugged. For me, the latter is most definitely true. Such is the reason I find myself deep in a game of poker with 7 guys at the youth hostel Destino Nomada, enjoying the relative comfort and security of being off the street, without a money belt digging into my pelvis bone. I can pretty much guarantee that these 7 guys are staying in tonight because they have no cash. But I don´t mind at all; their company is welcomed. And in the process I discover something very important about myself: I pretty much suck at poker. So much for beginner´s luck.

As for Bogota, I just have to say that all of you people at the State Department who write those scary travel advisories really need to step back and gain some perspective. Or at least, come here for awhile and see for yourself what´s going on. Because scary, dangerous, crime-ridden Colombia seems to be anything but. In fact, it feels no more scary or dangerous than say, the Bronx after dark. Even that might be a stretch. In fact, I would rather be here in Bogota than in downtown Los Angeles. Or in Yellowstone National Park, hiking alone. Which makes me wonder, if the State Department had to write a travel advisory about visiting the U.S., and foreigners actually read it, would anyone EVER come visit my country?

Now don´t get me wrong, street crime is most definitely a problem in Bogota, particulary at night. (But isn´t that the case in almost any hectic city, especially one that is relatively poor by international standards?) And the narrow, cobblestone streets do get pretty jammed with people, almost to a claustrophobic degree. But most of these people are students, I notice. In fact there are students everywhere! Apparently the Colombians take their education very seriously, and the system is top-notch here. Maybe Bogota is like Boston.... with Salsa dancing.

And there are tons of kids here. Happy little kids who laugh and play in parks, like kids do everywhere. In my so-far-failing effort to get a visa for Brazil, I had to stop by the American Embassy today to get more pages added to my passport. "Please come back at 3:00pm", the nice lady tells me with a big, hospitable, American smile. Three hours? For real? I don´t have to wait a week? I can`t help but wonder if this surprising lack of bureaucratic paper-pushing nonsense is Obama´s influence. Just let me think it is.

So anyway, to kill some time I taxi north to Parque Simon Bolivar. Supposedly, this park is bigger than Central Park in Manhattan. It is pretty fabulous, although I remain partial to its New York cousin. The park is a beautiful and peaceful place, a perfect respite from the smelly traffic and diesel fumes of Bogota´s main roads. And on this sunny weekday, it is jam-packed with adorable school children who are quite literally "frolicking", if I can use that word. Scary, dangerous Colombia???

But as a bible thumper reveres his own great book, I believe everything I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook. And I am warned by the LP authors to avoid walking on the streets at night in the center of town, exactly where I am staying. So I do. Instead - the book wisely tells me - get up early, sightsee and enjoy the city, and consider staying safely indoors at night. For an old gal like me who loves her sleep, this is so not a problem.

Speaking of age, whenever I do the youth hostel thing, if anyone asks, I am 28 years old. End of story. But have you ever noticed how innocently expressing love for a song can instantly give you away? Once again my cards stink. I fold. The radio starts blaring that soul-wrenching ballad "I need you now.... more than words can say I need you now....." by Alias, circa 1990. "Oh my god I LOVE this song" I exclaim without thinking. The game stops. 14 young man eyes are on me. They are confused. Dumb-founded. "How old ARE you?" they ask, practically in unison.

I just smile, and keep singing along.

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