As my time in Colombia was ending I found myself in the bustling capital city of Bogota. This high-altitude metropolis swarms with life from the colonial squares to the back-alley bars framed with some of the finest street art you’ll ever see. I’d been told to expect a true Latin American experience with everything from fine food, to fine culture, to fine woman. I’d also been told to watch out for crime, for while the city was tourist friendly by day it became something else entirely by night.
I was staying in a hostel in La Candelaria, an extremely historic neighbourhood of Bogota that was home to towering government palaces and beautiful museums, all connected via an intricate network of cobblestone streets. A quick search on La Candeleria will show any number of glowing reviews for the curious tourist, and just as quickly warn you of the potential dangers.
If Bogota had the possibility of danger after dark, then the La Candeleria district had the certainty. I was told by a well-meaning traveller on the Gringo trail that homicides were a thing of the past here but the accommodation prices were still super low and there’s nothing better than receiving travel tips framed with such macabre sentiment. It seemed that safety was paramount and so, after my previous date in Medellin I was ready for anything. As night fell in La Candeleria it became clear that most residents, and indeed all hostels, locked their doors and shunned the creeping night, leave nothing but eerily empty streets. Safe for all inside, far more vulnerable for those left walking alone. It was within this unique environment that I arranged a date with a local Colombian, Maria* and once again, I set forth looking for my forever after.
For a reason that escaped me then and continues to escape me now, we met at an Irish bar. An Aussie and a native Colombian sitting among a tacky facade of faded Jamieson barware and Irish knock off trinkets. Thankfully for us both she was proficient in English and had spent a year living in Australia, Sydney of all places. She outlined the ways in which Colombian men and Australian men differed. In her words, Colombian men played too many games while Aussies were more upfront about what they wanted. She also received the classic ‘emergency’ phone call from her sister in case it was not going well, and while I’m sure I’ve been screened by such a manoeuvre many times in the past it was interesting to see it carried out in Colombia – travel, the gift that keeps on giving.
As it was she politely declined her sister’s faux cry for help and we spent an enjoyable night getting to know about each other’s lives and the taste of each other’s lips. I’ll admit at this point; I didn’t foresee this going so well. She was a few years older than me and as a Bogota local who lived on the other side of town (see: safe side of town) I thought for sure she would leave as the sun fell behind the towering Monserrate mountain that stands guard over the city. Instead she said she would stay, and all she wanted to do was dance.
Now, the word ‘Reggaetón’ will divide opinion. The repetitive rhythm of Latin America, a pinch of electronica, a dash of hip hop and a splash of samba, is either loved or hated and when Maria mentioned a nearby Reggaetón club I had the opportunity of finding out my own opinion on the matter. Now I may not be the best dancer in the world, in fact my ability to incorporate sharp elbows in every dance I attempt should be looked at on a medical level, but drinking locally brewed Aguardiente in a club surrounded by locals who seem biologically made to bump and grind to Reggaetón was a travel experience I could not resist. And so, I found myself, in the shadows of midnight, with a beautiful Colombian girl twerking away and proving the philosopher Shakira correct when she ascertained that ‘hips don’t lie’. Colombia, you have outdone yourself.
Maybe it was the music, maybe it was the cheap booze or maybe Colombian women appreciate the sharp angles of my dancing more than my own Caucasian partners, whatever the reason it was clear we were spending the whole night together.
With such a spontaneous plan in effect we struck out from the club and headed back to my hostel. I vividly recall the contrast between La Candeleria by day and now night. The streets, while still beautiful in their frozen in time way, were deathly quiet and the once humming soundtrack of life was replaced with a nothingness that was almost ominous.
It didn’t take us long to reach my hostel, and it took even less time for them to tell me that guests were not allowed. This wasn’t a great shock to me as it’s common hostel policy. The very helpful front desk clerk did mention with a smile though,“but you can just book a private room for yourselves!”. In the spirit of the night that was fine with me, one private room please my good man! “We don’t have any private rooms available” came the quick-fire reply. I suspect he did that on purpose, took me soaring to the heavens with hope before dropping me back to reality, although I’ll never know for sure. “What I can do though is call around to some other hostels, see if they have private rooms?”
See, this put me in a bit of a predicament. Coming off the trauma of my Medellin date I had no desire to walk the streets of Colombia at night again, but on the other hand life is meant to be lived and Maria was gorgeous, and so one head over powered the other and we struck out back into the night, back into the silence, in search of a hostel that my own ever-helpful hostel clerk assured me was “somewhere very close”.
It didn’t take long for our first encounter with Bogota’s seedy underbelly. A man approached us, obviously homeless, and looking more street smart than I could ever hope to be. He spoke to Maria who stood behind me, apprehensively listening, before passing on the translated message of this man who would not have gotten a second look during the day, but by nightfall was every bit in charge of the streets. Apparently, he told her it was dangerous to be out at night, that we risked being robbed, or worse, by those that called the streets home. This was my chance for redemption, after putting my Medellin date in danger I vowed not to make the same mistakes so I did what felt right, I got out my wallet, opened it up and showed him all the money inside.
You have never seen a face fall quicker than Maria’s. The charming Aussie she had enjoyed a long night with was essentially offering his wallet to a homeless man who had delivered a thinly veiled threat. “Tell him I’ll pay him” I said to Maria, “if he protects us, I will pay him until we find our hostel”.
There are moments in life where we fall, and then there are moments that offer redemption. If you’re expecting a horror story where he robbed me, or the police were required or I accidentally brought another Tinder date to tears through a naïve sense of adventure…then you’ll be waiting a while. This homeless bloke was nothing short of a legend.
For the next 30 minutes the three of us wandered through the empty streets of La Candeleria in search of an open hostel. He never once tried to take my money, he never made any threatening moves and best of all he did keep everyone away from us. Any time we encountered some nefarious looking characters he went ahead and moved them on, whether it was with a friendly tone or a forceful voice he was like our very own down on his luck body guard. A non-English speaking vagrant of a guardian Angel.
Through Maria’s translating he told me how he had been living on the streets since his mother passed away, how his life was tough but not without joy and that he genuinely appreciated me wanting to learn about him. I shared stories of my life growing up in Australia, my goals in life and the adventures I’d had on my travels. Just a couple of blokes, separated by a vast socio-economic chasm on opposite sides of the world, shooting the shit. Truth be told it was one of the most eye opening and awesome experiences I have had in this great wide world.
For anyone following the original narrative, yes, Maria and I eventually found a hostel, booked a private room and we’ll always have the memories of that night. I ended up paying this young man the equivalent of a few dollars for his time and efforts and he seemed genuinely thankful. I didn’t find my Tinderella, but what had stood out for me was the generosity of a Colombian bloke who showed that deep down we’re all looking for the same thing - Love, acceptance and happiness. And between the three of us in that motley crew that night I’d like to think we all found a little of each in our own way.
Alexander Porter is a 27 year old with a degree from Sydney University. Getting it in a frame is on his 30 before Thirty list. He has a Back to the Future tattoo and is available for party hire. When Alex isn't writing he is watching his beloved St George Dragons let him down, drinking flavoured milk and planning new travel adventures. You can follow him on instagram @alexander_le_great