I may have told you this before, but I distinctly remember an ex-boyfriend of mine, after some years together, turning to me and remarking: “The thing is with you, you’re not scared of anything,” to which I sat in stunned silence for a few moments before replying: “Are you joking? I am scared of EVERYTHING.”
My mother will never visit me in Colombia because she is claustrophobic, that means she’s scared of planes, trains, boats – even cars if someone else is driving. But she would never tell you that. Instead, she’d tell you: “My daughter is a writer and she takes nice photographs, so I don’t need to visit Colombia. Besides, who would look after the dog?”
My father and I discussed this once. “The trouble with your mother,” said the man who has been married to her for more than 40 years: “Is that she never admits to fear.” Thinking back to the time my mother fought cancer, chemotherapy and all, he’s probably right. She threw a party to celebrate the end of the treatment, something like: “Forget chemo, how do you fancy a fondant fancy instead?” It’s only as a proper adult I can fully appreciate how terrified she must have been.
A few years ago I went to see a fortune teller in a street market in Bolivia, you know, the kind of places where they have the unborn llamas ready for sacrifice and you have to crawl into a tent to get a few pearls of wisdom from an old man with cards and ‘mystic’ water.
He gave me the usual rubbish – you like to travel, you’ll meet your future husband this year etc. etc. – but just before I left he turned over a card and looked at me very seriously.
“You have a problem with alcohol,” he said.
I laughed. Boy, had he picked the wrong traveller. Most of my friends joke about how little I drink, beyond the odd lapse, but I can go months without touching alcohol and be completely unbothered. I like to dance and I loathe to be hungover. Easy.
“Maybe you don’t drink very often,” the old man continued.
“But you do when you’re worried. You need to be careful about that. You have a weakness, worse than other people. Be careful.”
Hilarious right? Everyone knows humans have the same fears, the same weaknesses. That turn-to-alcohol-when-you-have-a-problem line is as old as the hills. Next please.
And yet, I always think about that bloody old man. There were two clear periods in my life when I drank too much – when I split from my first long-term boyfriend at 22 and when I moved to Liverpool at 26, suddenly everything was different and out of my comfort zone and I – the ‘serious’ one who sips her beer and leaves glasses half-full – was a ‘party girl’ and ever so slightly out-of-control.
I mention all this, of course, because it’s happening again. I have drunk more in the last month in Bogotá than I have in the entire rest of this year – two nights have ended post-sunrise, with taxi drivers muttering their sarcastic: “Buenos Dias Señores,” as I’m left blinking and wondering where the night went.
Last Saturday was epic, even by my own fallen-off-pedestal standards. I went to a friend’s house to mark Thanksgiving. The wine began to flow at 4pm and the rest is un-writable. The next day I awoke without my cellphone and decided that, really, enough was enough.
(I’m not pretending there is anything exceptional about this behaviour – this is your average Saturday night for most people. It’s just exceptional for me. I’m the sensible one)
And so I decided to give my life some serious thought. Nope, not worried about work. Nope, not worried about relationships. In fact, I decided to use the lost cellphone as a ‘clean up’ – determined only to retype the names of people I actually like and see in this city, you know, the people I would invite to my birthday or my wedding. I got to 50 names before I thought, this is ridiculous, could I love Bogotá any more?
Then there was a knock on the door and my ex-boyfriend appeared, wrinkling his nose, because I was listening to Fonseca.
“What is it with you and Fonseca?” he demanded, before handing me some cash and asking if he could borrow my credit card. To book a flight to Cartagena. No return.
There was a silence.
“You’re going back to Cartagena?” I said, stunned. My ex-boyfriend turned close friend and general life support, who was supposed to be opening a restaurant here in Bogotá – he had the investors, the menu, he’d even managed to rent the perfect location.
“Yeah,” he said dismissively.
“You know nothing happens in Bogotá in December and January. We’ve decided to open it in Cartagena first instead. We’ll be back someday. But what about you? You seem to be going out a lot lately… are you actually writing anything? What about your book? Your blog? What about that stuff people are paying you to write?”
I couldn’t answer. I felt like Carrie when Big announced he was moving to California. My ex-boyfriend might be my ex, but he’s one of those people who’s not allowed to leave.
“Oh what happened to you?” he laughed, shaking his head and then as he leaned over to give me a kiss goodbye on the cheek he said:
“Come on, you know me. This is your home. I don’t even like Bogotá. But if there’s a problem you call me. I know what you’re like, okay? Don’t be proud. Just call me.”
And with that he was gone and I kicked Fonseca, because no-one can sing the words no, te and vayas like Fonseca and suddenly I wasn’t in the mood. But that bombshell still didn’t explain what I was hiding from, whatever fear I had been trying to drown.
That realisation arrived slowly, of course. Sneakily.
I’m flying to Cuba in 13 days but that’s not the problem. I’ll be meeting a friend there and we’ll have three weeks of sunshine and beaches; mojitos, trilbies and Che, taking our pictures and writing our stories and salsa dancing with every handsome Cuban we find.
No, the problem is that I, in my infinite wisdom some time last May, decided I wouldn’t want to return to Colombia in early January – oh no, I thought, I’d much rather spend six weeks travelling alone through central America… Except I don’t now. Of course I don’t. I’m bloody terrified.
Even worse my Colombian visa will expire a month after I return and as much as I dance around and tell anyone who’ll listen that if they refuse to renew it, I don’t care. I’ll just move to Rio or Buenos Aires baby. I know I won’t. I’m married to Bogotá.
You see, Bogotá is the husband who brings you flowers or chocolate for no reason, who you call when you’ve done something stupid because you know he’ll lie convincingly and say it’s all okay – then he’ll just sort it all out for you as soon as you hang up. Rio and Buenos Aires are the handsome movie-star husbands, the professional footballers. You don’t call them and say: “Honey, I know you’re watching Real Madrid, but will you please come and remove a giant Amazonian moth from my bathroom because I’m too scared to shower? Thanks muchly.” You just wouldn’t dare.
And so, if you see me out, with a glass of wine in one hand and my eyes glittering with mischief, if I’m grinning and dancing and telling you I know a club that’s open until the early hours, just stop me. Just stop me right there. Take away the wine and tell me that it’s going to be alright. That Bogotá is still going to be here when I get back. Because if you don’t, I’m not going. That’s it. I’m just not going. I completely and utterly refuse.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.