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Panic in Bogotá

I’m on the first morning flight from Bogotá to Medellín. A friend has arranged a car to meet me at 5 am to take me to the airport. For the past week I have been repeatedly cautioned to arrange taxis in advance through a service and never hail one off the street. Kidnappings are common, as are robberies and murders.

It’s very early and I’m exhausted, but I am still very much on edge. The high altitude coupled with an “aguardiente” hangover further drain me. Stepping out of my friend’s apartment I see a black vehicle and driver parked nearby. I can’t remember the license plate I am supposed to look for or the name of the driver. Not good. The vehicle is also non-descript, and it’s not a new ride nor a particularly good one.

I rap on the frontside passenger window. The driver, who’s face is as innocuous as the car, leans over and aggressively unrolls the glass. “Aeropuerto?” I inquire, as if trying to ask, “Are you the car that is supposed to take me to the airport?” The driver hums in affirmation, so I pack the trunk and sit in the back.

He takes off with the typical haste of a cabbie the world over, his near-jalopy wobbling on the axles as he accelerates and banks around street corners and overtakes other motorists. He tears through traffic with the maximum precision of a race car driver. The radio crackles and blares salsa. My senses deadened and without a seat belt, I struggle to remain upright.

We finally sail onto the opening of a freeway, and with relief I peer up through the windshield to see the overhead sign printed “Aeropuerto,” with a ubiquitous airplane icon and an arrow directing traffic to the left lane. But the driver jumps into the right lane and we quickly veer off the highway and back into the city. I look longingly out the back window at the fast dissipating sign. A pang of terror engulfs me and I remain speechless.

We cruise through Bogotá’s dilapidated urban outskirts, a dramatically different neighborhood from where my friend lives. Many of the buildings are vacant and have boarded windows or are locked with aluminum doors and heavy chains. And every visible surface is covered in graffiti.

It inappropriately occurs that travel operators could run graffiti tours through here, that the breadth and sample of the styles would appeal to the right kind of tasteless tourist, like the ones who hire guides to show them the favelas in Rio or snap pictures off the tops of double-decker buses in Harlem. I’ve never seen so much graffiti anywhere in the world. While on one level it is impressive, I am worryingly aware that this fleeting observation serves as little more than an involuntary psychological reflex to suppress the encroaching fear of the fate I will soon face.

I do not attempt to communicate with the driver. The fact of the matter is I really couldn’t if I wanted to. My high school Spanish has been rendered to a few paltry words, and I can’t understand much of anything besides. I also know that anything I say would be futile, that there is no way of talking myself out of this situation, and that attempting to do so, in fact, could only worsen the inevitable.

I think about jumping out of the car, but I’m not wearing the right shoes to get me far enough. I think about making a phone call, but my US Blackberry doesn’t work in Colombia. I think about my wife and son. Though three continents away in northern China, just knowing they are out there brings me a modicum of solace. I think about other things too, but like the graffiti I again realize that none of this is really thinking at all.

While terrified for what will come, I am at the same time somewhat resolved to it. After all, this is not personal. They will take what little I have; a laptop, the nonworking phone, a few hundred dollars, my passport, and any other bits and bobs they can pawn off. And that will be the end of it, and likely of me. They will be disappointed, to be sure, but such is the temper of their lives. I might be able to get them some more money but it will take time. I am too tired to think anything through, I just don’t have the energy to care. I feel like I have entered into the final stage of terminal cancer and simply have no more fight left in me. I will take what comes.

After a half hour of weaving through the labyrinthine ghetto, we turn onto a road that runs parallel to a high chain-linked fence. The fence stretches straight off into the horizon ahead, and it is now that I notice on the other side of the barracade the tail wings of parked airplanes. It is the last thing I was expecting yet the only thing I should have been.

He soon drops me at the terminal. I pay him, collect my things, and say “Gracias” before watching him drive off. My feeling of relief does not cancel the fear I have concocted. I wonder if he had just taken a shortcut or gone the backroads to avoid any tolls. I have no idea and I will never know. I’m still barely awake and I have a lot of time to kill.

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