Travel is always full of surprises and contrasts and little shifts in perception away from where you have come from and into where you are now.  This is especially true on the first day spent in a new city.  And this is especially true on the first day spent in Bogotá, Colombia.

The size of the minuscule taxis as you exit La Dorado, Bogotá’s airport, is a good example of initial surprise.  Leaving the airport by taxi in Bogotá, you may end up with your suitcases sitting on your lap due to the limited size of the taxi trunk — highly unusual in New York, for example.  The politeness of the taxi drivers only compounds the surprise.  The fact that it’s raining and cold and not unlike arriving in London weatherwise sets the brain aback.

Arriving at the charming colonial hotel that you’ve booked in la Candelaria, the historic part of downtown, you feel that you have indeed come to a foreign country.  The room is all raftered ceilings and small crannies with wooden shuttered windows that look out on red tiled roofs.  And then your Colombian friend calls and wants to take you to dinner to celebrate your arrival in Colombia.  You’re thinking charming courtyard and stone fountain.  Sure, let’s go to dinner.

So your friend picks you up and suddenly you find yourself on the Autopista Norte, an expressway, stalled in traffic that seems interminable.  What happened to the red tile roofs?  Your friend reassures you that no, this is really a nice restaurant, nothing grand since you’re tired, but nice, and after 30 to 45 minutes, he stops the car at the entrance to the underground parking lot of a spanking new mall.  He stops so that security guards and their bomb sniffing dogs can check out the trunk of the car for explosives.  Surprise! Something not common, or at least not yet, in the United States.

Colombia is very mall developed, which is another surprise. There are an incredible number of upscale malls throughout Bogotá, and, in fact, throughout the rest of Colombia.  Your friend wants you to try Crepes and Waffles, a very successful chain of restaurants built on the notion of old-fashioned crepes and, well, waffles.  The decor is wood and metal and very contemporary, and the clientele noticeably middle-class.  The food is surprisingly good, but it is not exactly foreign.  The whole experience is very first world, in fact.

Until you exit the parking garage of the mall, and suddenly find yourself on a road of ruts and gravel that has apparently never been paved.  Bumping back to the expressway and zigging to avoid enormous potholes within blocks of shiny Zara and Tommy Hilfiger, you notice a horse tethered to a post on a sliver of grass abutting the road.  And you wonder why?  The answer to the why of course is that you are in foreign country and that this is your first night here and that you are tired.  And the horse glances sideways at you as bump past.  Or not.

Your friend wants to show you something special.  And because you’re exhausted, you think okay.  So you find yourself ascending a winding road high above the city of Bogotá stuck behind a windowless bus painted in the bright shocking colors of somewhere that is not home.  The bus is a Chiva, a moving, booming boombox full to the gills with partying, screaming, singing and drinking young folk out for a good time.  As you ascend La Calera, there are more and more Chivas until you are suddenly in the midst of a full-fledged open air midnight party.  You stop the car and grab a beer from one of the many vendors cooking up a storm at the side of the road. And standing next to what seem like hundreds of other non-English speaking partiers, you are privy to the shock of the miles of lights of the city of Bogotá spread below you.  How come you’ve never seen this in a movie or in a photograph, you wonder?  Despite the overwhelming sound of the music all around you, the city outlined below seems magically quiet.  L.A. transposed to Colombia.

Driving back to your hotel an hour or so later, you notice that practically nobody stops at stop signs or red lights at this time of the night.  These traffic signals and signs are mere suggestions of caution.  And at the corner of the block where your hotel is located you notice something that you had missed earlier — military personnel with machine guns.  You should feel safer with the presence of machine guns, your friend suggests.  And now, there are also barriers blocking the road giving the street an eerie feeling.  And just then a horse and cart clank past with the body of a wheel-less Citroen Deux Chevaux perched precariously aloft.  And it seems incongruous — and it is incongruous!  And you realize in the cool night that you are indeed far from home, and that you have arrived in Colombia.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Gale, Cengage Learning’s Speaking Globally blog: http://blog.gale.com/speakingglobally/the-view-from-here/day-1…-bogota-colombia/

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