This is what it looks like to leave the Tatacoa Desert. Take it all in, because today you’re going back to Bogota. Back to the city, out of nothingness, back to the urban sprawl. Then back to California.
But wait, before you go home, there’s gotta be one more crazy Colombian overland trip. First, there’s a ride to Villavieja in this desert transport contraption; essentially a motorcycle with a carriage attached to it to carry people and luggage.
Then there’s sitting in the desert heat for an hour with a Swiss couple you met back in Popayán while you wait for a van to fill up so you can go back to Neiva.
Then there’s more waiting in Neiva after one last ticket salesperson lies to you one last time about a bus departure time.
Then there’s driving slowly and stopping to pick up anyone and everyone who is waiting on the side of the road for transportation.
Then there’s the bus getting searched by the Colombian authorities. When they ask for everyone’s ID and take them out of sight to inspect them, you know it’s best to give them your driver’s license instead of your passport.
Then there’s more driving incredibly slowly, continuing picking anyone and everyone who is looking for a ride.
Then there’s traffic and a extended stop for lunch around 3 or 4pm because Colombians don’t skip or play around when it comes to lunch.
Then there’s more traffic as the night takes over and you start to worry because you have no hostel booked because you’ve been off the grid for the better part of a week and it’s dark and what if there’s no bed available anywhere?
Then hours after you should have gotten to Bogota, you reach the edge of the city sprawl. Through traffic, your bus inches its way to the bus station. Then you wait at the back of a long line of people who are trying to get taxis.
The Swiss couple is going to the same neighborhood in Bogota as you, so you agree share a cab, arranging and rearranging three large backpacks in the tiny car until everyone and their luggage fits. They have pre-booked their sleeping arrangements, but they are kind enough to let you search for a bed before they go off to their hostel.
The first hostel has no available beds and neither does the second. But the third one does. It’s a party hostel, something you swore off after your first big solo trip five years before. But one cannot be picky when one shows up to a city without a reservation after dark on a Saturday night.
So you go up to the room which is overflowing with backpacks and long term South America backpackers’ gear such as all kinds of wool attire decorated with llamas. Everyone is getting ready to go out for the night, but you’ve come way too late to meet people and join them and you are too tired and hungry to do so anyway.
You have dinner at a little arepa place you visited at the beginning of your trip before returning the hostel and climbing up to your absurdly high top bunk. It’s extremely cold in this dorm room, and you wrap the blankets around you as tightly as you can, put in your earplugs and put on your eye mask, hoping to sleep through the chill and the sound of your roommates returning from their night out. You’ll find another bed tomorrow.
The next morning, as you walk around the city, you notice that Bogota doesn’t look or feel the same as it did when you arrived six weeks ago. The city has not changed much in the last six weeks, but you’re not looking at it with the same set of eyes you had when you stepped off the plane, fresh and ready to explore. No, you’re not the same person. It’s impossible to spend time traveling deeply in a place and not have it change you.
That person had not yet flown like a bird over the Colombian countryside, embracing the fear, the wind, the exhilaration.
That person had not yet solo hiked through such a spectacular coastal paradise that it made her gasp with awe and gratitude.
That person had not yet had numerous bus rides that made her question why she was even doing this at all and gotten answers in the misty midst of sublime beauty.
That person had not yet sloshed through mud and climbed a mountain to be rewarded with sight of the most stunning collection of palm trees hiding in the Andes Mountains.
That person had not yet seen heartbreak presented so profoundly alongside the photogenic architecture of Popayán, reminding her that pretty places we visit as travelers can hold entirely different realities for people who aren’t just passing through, and we should never forget this.
That person had not yet discovered the secluded allure of the Huila department, a less visited corner of the country where friendliness and beauty and simplicity emanate from its deserts and cloud forested mountains.
That person had not yet had stereotypes of a country torn down by experiencing it firsthand and witnessing the honesty and kindness of everyday people.
Six weeks before, that person had arrived with a list of what to see, but did not know what she was truly going to see, who she was going meet, or how the trip would change her.
When you end in the place where you began your trip, you might feel wistful about all the wide-eyed wonder and innocence and anticipation that you experienced when you first arrived. But the end of a trip is its own distinct thing of beauty. The place you’ve just explored is no longer an idea. It’s tangible; it’s irrevocably part of you.
So one more trip ends, you stick a few more pins in the globe, and one more bittersweet ephemeral cycle of travel is complete as the larger journey continues.