broken in bogotá.

life, solotravel, travel

Before heading to Bogotá a few weeks ago, I’d heard nothing good. In fact, I heard much of the opposite. Stories of about how wayward and conniving the taxi drivers there could be. Warnings to not ever hail a taxi from the street lest you be overcharged and swindled. How dreary, cold and overcast the weather generally is there. The high altitude which can assault those not accustomed to it with migraines, aches, pains, nausea and fatigue.

I wasn’t exactly excited about going there. Although I was excited about eating my way through Colombia at the up and coming Bogotá Wine and Food Festival. It was, after all, why I was there instead of continuing to hang around Medellín , where I had spent a magical few days prior to exchanging a city with “eternal spring” for one where I’d need to consciously layer.

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Brrrrrr.

And its coldness, the wind and the clouds hanging low in the sky, drifting beneath the golden green mountain peaks assuredly met me, a mere two days into the total five days total I planned on spending there. I was at El Chato surrounded by food writers and chefs. We were passing shared plates around the shared table, with the sound of a chorus of oohs, aahs and pleased food moans.

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Towards the end of the lunch, I finally connected my phone to WiFi after being disconnected and offline for most of the day. As I often do, I pressed my thumb against the Gmail icon and did a cursory scan of the subject lines. The name of a friend popped out to me most. The name of my dear friend along with the words “killed in a fatal auto accident.” My breath left my body. Then I froze.

A heavy plate teetered in my hands and eyes darted back at me. I wasn’t sitting alone at the table and those around me, the strangers around me, wondered why I was acting so strangely, why it looked as if I was practicing a balancing act with the plate in my hands motionless. A nudge and gentle laugh from the person sitting next to me jolted me back to the present, to which I shared robotically, ignoring the compassion I received. I excused myself to the restroom. I didn’t have to pee.

Instead I sat on the commode, blinking ferociously, feeling nothing and everything at the same time. I held my phone in my hand, reading the subject title of the email over and over again, willing to believe the truth. I had a friend who was dead. A friend of mine, one who I had vulnerably shared bits and pieces of my life and heart for the past seven years, was dead.


 

The first time I met my dear friend, Precious was her name, it was the fall of 2010. I was 24-years-old in the first semester of my graduate writing program. She sat next to me and seemed to be scribbling on her notepad notes from our professor who rambled in circles for the entire three hours of class. I didn’t speak to her for months. And later when we became friends, she admitted she thought I was unapproachable, although we often caught each other’s eyes as two of the few Black women in our class.

Turns out, she wasn’t scribbling notes on her notepad. She showed me some months in the semester her sketches she spent her class time creating. She was a gifted artist aside from being a brilliant, fluid writer and poet. She was a year younger than me and wiser than me in so many ways. Her quiet strength moved me as she talked from her eyes and her heart.

She was and still remains the most extraordinary person I have ever met. Her friendship healed me after years of losing friends due to people telling me I was too exhausting, required too much and was too sensitive and feeling to keep people in my corner. I never gained that sense from her from the moment we became friends. She was open and honest, friendly and warm. We talked about our lives, our families, our joys and passions, our deep-seated and hidden pains.

Even after I graduated a year early and no longer saw her on campus during the week, we still kept in touch. Our friendship wasn’t predicated on frequency. Often we went weeks or months without seeing each other before we reconnected. But when we did? It was like no time had passed at all. It was as if, once again, I could pause all the tunnels, noise and distractions and be heard, be loved, be affirmed, be enough.

I never told her this and now, I wish I had but she was my shining star. I looked to her with seedy admiration because of how she channeled all her pain and past hurts into moving forward. Her shining example enabled me to do so again and again. After breakups, after disappointments. After moving to Spain, leaving Spain, moving to Washington, D.C. and leaving Washington, D.C. She remained my friend through all the changes and ups and downs, all the drama-filled phone calls and texts about my latest meltdown. And she never let any of lapses in judgments lessen the strength of our friendship.

The funny thing? She once told me she thought I was braver than her. I never agreed. I still don’t now.


 

Today marks three weeks since her death. Because we were those types of friends who didn’t depend on seeing or talking often to keep the love and nurturance of our friendship alive, sometimes, most times, most days, most moments, I can busy and distract myself with the lie she’s somewhere distantly still alive. That life hasn’t changed. That she didn’t die alone on the streets at night.

It works most times.

And other times the truths ripples over me and I ruminate. I turn it over and over again in my mind and still can’t come out with any shining truth. She is dead and intellectually I know this. Emotionally I wrestle with despair and disbelief.

The day after I’d learned she died, I opted out of morning outdoors yoga and a group dinner. I stayed buried underneath the crisp, white duvet in my room and ordered room service: a cheeseburger, french fries, tomato soup, a slice of cheesecake, an ice cold coke. My food arrived minutes later and as the TV blared in the background, I sipped the tomato soup spoonful by the spoonful. Then my chest heaved with heavy tears.


 

My last full day in Bogotá I balanced filling grateful with broken as I stuffed my face with at least five different burgers and Colombian artesanal beer. The day was uncharacteristically sunny and cheerful and the sun’s rays bounced off the full, blue sky. I still wanted to cry. I still wanted to ball my hands into two ardent fists and box with the shadows of the Universe until I had answers.

Instead I ate. I sipped beer. I had conversations with the families that sat around me and watched as they looked onto me in amazement when I told them I wrote, that I was there to write about their city and their country.

Then I gathered all my things up and left. I went back to my quiet, dark and lonely hotel room. I packed up all my belongings. I prepared to leave Bogotá and I pledged to never return. To never revisit the site of when I communed with the ghosts of grief and grief fully entered me.

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feelings and friends.

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She was my best friend. I loved her to the moon and back. I supposed I was drawn to her because she was so different, just like I was. I was the geeky, socially awkward girl who was picked on because I enthusiastically answered all the questions from my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Chelf, and she was the new student all the way from Germany, with the equally strange name and a mass of red, curly, bouncy hair. She wore glasses, too. 

We bonded over story time, giggling in the stray corner in the library, laughing at books far above the reading level we were supposed to be in in the fifth grade. We had our own secret system of communicating, a shorthand we created during the first time we ate lunch together after we discarded the cardboard pizza, rotten chocolate milk and oranges near being spoiled. 

She trusted me, unfailingly so.

One day, after watching one of my favorite childhood movies “Harriet The Spy” I decided to make my own nifty spy book. I wrote down the names of every classmate on a separate page and painstakingly wrote a sentence or two about what I really thought about them, including my best friend. I carelessly left the book on my desk while I went to the restroom and because we had an agreement, one strengthened by a daily pinky swear, strictly forbidding the keeping of secrets from one another, she looked at the journal out of curiosity. 

When I returned from the restroom, she was acting strange, cold even. Recess was next and we all ran like a pack of wolves out of the back door of the classroom onto the playground. During that fifteen minutes, I heard whispers of my name. Before we went back inside, my teacher pulled me aside and questioned me about the journal. Turns out, my friend saw what I had written about her, came to my teacher in tears and then told the rest of the class for revenge. My journal was confiscated and right then I learned a lesson about the cost of honesty within interpersonal relationships. 

As I’m now older, I see this honesty of a different flavor. The honesty of not being afraid to tell people when who they are and the friendship they can offer you doesn’t quite work for you anymore, even when before it did, or rather you couldn’t be true to yourself and admit it just was never a complimentary fit. 

Moving thousand of miles away to live out a long-held dream of mine easily demystified the clarity I held about key friendships in my life. I watched people I loved and adored, cackled with over endless glasses of wine, shared my messy truths I dared not tell a soul vanish into streams of silence. Most of the time I spent adjusting to life in Madrid I wondered what type of horrible person, what type of horrible friend, I must have been to feel completely abandoned by almost every friend I had known previously. It was damn near identical to the heartbreak over the loss of a lover, only more painful, more through and through, like an ice pick taken and stabbed to the heart. 

And I hate how even now, months later, I still carry these wounds with me. They are nursed in the hidden pockets of my oversized handbags or the clever slits in the fabric of my favorite skirts. They’re a reminder when I open the Facebook or Gmail apps and know I can no longer count on new messages or silly banter from them. I’ve fallen away from my past and these former friends but it seems their memories, the hurt, the betrayal continues to follow me. 

I used to proudly declare to whomever would listen how difficult it was for me to make new friends, until I realized to those people whom I’m trying to forge new bonds and connections with it’s probably off-putting. 

But it is hard for me to make new friends. It’s hard for me to trust new faces, new spirits. To discern whether or not someone who I perceive initially as being good-natured and someone I mesh with it just showing me their representative. That they won’t be someone who I decide I don’t need to be around any longer. 

And because I’m particularly sensitive, it becomes harder and harder to put myself out there, especially since in general, I’ve found people can be shady, fair-weather, undependable and plain-out clueless on what it takes to be a friend and maintain a friendship.

Finding and making friends is complicated on another level when you relocate to another country, but the expat experience is so eerily precious with friendship. Expats all speak the same language. We know what it feels like to feel isolated and out of place in our former “home.” We get the difficulties which can arise when adjusting to a new place and how being an expat, overall, is akin to becoming quite familiarly acquainted with suffering. Conversing with an expat can become like speaking to a soulmate. You understand each other in ways most others won’t. 

These friendships, these expat connections, can be incredibly fleeting and not tinkered with longevity. You could meet someone who you are sure is a sister-friend but weeks after meeting them, they move. And then you never hear from them again.

From this happening to me at least twice in the past eight months, I’ve learned connections are not necessarily about permanence; they’re about depth. Friendship is not always an entity which you can box into a certain category to be held indefinitely. Sometimes a friend is needed for a week. Or a month. Or a year. The trouble arises when we expect lifetime connections with everyone. This is when (and how) we set ourselves up to be disappointed. We hurt ourselves. 

Seasons can change just as swiftly as the breeze rushing past us on a leisurely stroll. And when these seasons shift, sometimes they take people with them. You’ll wonder why a person’s energy has changed. Why they’re no longer quick to correspond with you. Why they seem lackadaisical with you when you do touch base. It’s nothing personal. There’s nothing you cold have done to change the outcome. Their role (and purpose) in your life has been completed. Let them go. Release your attachment. 

The release part is something I work towards everyday. It’s not easy or simple or even a process which occurs quickly. I’m trying to find the fine balance between letting go of a friendship which really meant something to me and treasuring the beauty and value before it corroded. 

Every now and then I search for her name on Facebook, my former elementary school best friend. Nothing ever comes up. Mutual friends tell me she’s had children now. I wonder what’s she doing. What life means to her. And if she remembers how many, many, many years ago, we had a special friendship. One which showed me pretty early on the beauty of truly being understood and accepted.

The outside of the Renfe station in Aranjuez, Spain, from a recent day-trip with a new friend.

The outside of the Renfe station in Aranjuez, Spain, from a recent day-trip with a new friend.