I met Andrés, a twenty-year-old photographer, on top of a tractor as he was photographing capybaras and searching for anacondas in the middle of the Colombian plains. He had bought his way into “national geographic land” — as I excitedly referred to it — by carrying heavy and expensive film equipment for Pato, a renowned Colombian nature documentary producer.
I, on the other hand, grabbed a wooden broomstick and cleaned the red floor of the hotel in the llanos where we were staying until blisters appeared. In return, I was allowed to ride Nube de agua beside llaneros — Colombian cowboys — counting cattle and eating cocoa pods and mangosteen straight from their respective trees.
After sharing what we both considered to be one of the best days of our lives, Andrés decided to invite me to visit him in Bogotá. Initially, the idea of visiting a metropolis with around seven million people living inequitably in several neighbourhoods scattered randomly in 1.587km2 to the south, north and west of the city centre seemed appalling. But the thought of staying with someone who had lived in the city for four years and who traveled constantly within it also made it exciting.
My host lived on the far western edge of the city, exactly on the opposite side of the Candelaria where most tourists stayed for a few days after landing in the capital. His neighbourhood was a perfect grid of straight streets with uneven pavements next to, mostly, unpainted buildings.
During the day the streets were busy. Children ran errands for their mothers who sat in stools selling milk, rice, fizzy drinks, and bread in the corner shops, while men worked in garages fixing virtually anything.
I was told to always walk fast after dark, not to carry anything valuable, and never to talk to strangers. It sounded like advice my parents would give and I, following their own example, never obeyed. But this time, I surrendered. It was wiser not to push the limits of the “safety” my olive skin, brown eyes, and long, wavy dark hair granted me. If the echoes of my Portuguese accent were gone, then only my nose would give me away.
On a Friday night, after a family row which ended with Andrés’ uncle’s white car disappearing around the corner with his trunk open, we walked slowly talking about our families and childhood. A thin young man, around the same age as Andrés, crossed the road and stopped to greet him.
“Sandra, this is my friend Johnny. Johnny, this is Sandra. She is from Portugal.”
“Hi,” he said, glancing at me quickly and turning to his friend.
“I might go to Argentina. I might be able of studying there for a few months. Can you believe it?”
“That’s great. Sandra is from Portugal,” Andrés repeated.
I looked at Andrés, and his friend faced me.
“Wow, wow. Portugal,” his eyes widened, staring at me in surprise.
“Yes,” I replied, praying that his next words would not be “Cristiano Ronaldo.” Was he another football fan who thought I knew the football player personally?
“How did you get here? Where are you staying?” He asked as he started to walk from one side to the other, coming up with questions faster than I could answer.
“How much money did you bring?”
“To South America? Mmmm, about $500 USD.”
“Do your parents send you money?”
I smiled. I had heard different versions of that same question so many times: “Do you have rich parents?” “Do your parents pay you to travel?” They were questions I heard often and yet, depending on the occasion, usually took a few breaths to pick my words before answering. Travelling was my luxury and my vice. If I decided to travel around South America without a return flight or travel insurance in spite of how insane that might sound to others, it felt even more insane not to do it.
“I couldn’t decide if I should ask my parents to stop having lunch or dinner so I could live my dreams,” I answered good-humouredly.
“Sandra is just like us, she works,” Andrés added with a smile of satisfaction.
“How do you do it?”
“Well, I have sort of a part-time online job. It does not pay much, but it helps. I also do volunteer work, Couchsurfing, teach English and Portuguese, and sometimes I accept invitations from strangers to stay at their houses,” I said teasing Andrés with a smile.
“Wow,” he said walking faster over the cement.
“There is always something you can do. Once in Mexico I wanted to dive but I did not have enough to pay for it, so I emailed all the diving centres I found online and knocked on every “Padi” door saying I could speak four languages and had over ten years of experience in customer service. And in the end, I dived for six weeks, sometimes two or three times per day, and washed wet suits and diving equipment after every dive.”
“Wow!” he said, moving frantically under the dim yellow light with his eyes staring into the dark streets.
I stood quietly waiting for his next question.
“I have to go. I have homework to do,” he said, disappearing quickly around the corner.
“Why was he so excited?” I asked.
“He met you,” Andrés said with a smile.
“You didn’t get like that.”
“I did. But I could not show it.”
“Well, what about our visit to the hostel? You met Moya, the Irish girl, Paulo, the Argentinian, mmm… the French guy, and the American guy, Aaron.”
“I was so excited. I thought my heart was going to explode,” his eyes shone.
“Surely you were more excited when you were working on that documentary with Pato. He is recognised and successful, and had lots of incredible and exciting stories about his adventures.”
“But you are like us,” he said with a grin from ear to ear. “You make our dreams possible.”
My eyes grew bigger. Me? I followed him, stung by his comment. He pushed the already open front door, climbed the steps to the first floor, and reached for his keys to open the door. We walked into the kitchen, a sort of corridor which turned slightly less wide, leading to a bedroom with two single beds an arm’s-length apart. Parallel to the corridor a white-framed glass door gave access to the toilet.
“Are you sure you don’t want to sleep in the bedroom?” He asked, frowning while he laid an old mattress on the corridor.
“No. I am not going to make my host sleep on the floor,” I answered determined.
Andrés smiled, resigned. It was the resignation of a once upon a time sixteen-year-old who left the village to learn photography and filmmaking in the city. Then borrowed enough money to buy an entry DSLR camera, brought his mother and sister over, taught them what he learned, and opened a studio with them. Then, rented that apartment in that cul-de-sac.
During the day, while his mother and sister took photographs and edited and processed images, he walked through the city searching and negotiating for photo-shoots. He had a casual resigned smile of someone who had given a new opportunity to the person who had given him life.