I arrived in Bogota one hour late. The flight from Miami was delayed because the plane arrived from wherever it was coming from late and they had to perform the usual routine maintenance, cleanup before we could board. I didn’t mind. I had all the time in the world.
Mar, the 29-year-old Colombian literature professor with whom I’d be staying, would not be home until early evening. So getting to Bogota at 1 p.m. would mean I would still have plenty of time to kill. I figured I would spend it trying to establish mobile phone service. With the help of Verizon Wireless, my telephone carrier in the United States, I unlocked the BlackBerry Storm – a smart phone with global access – for use around the world, starting with my first stop, Bogota, Colombia. When I landed in Bogota, soon as I picked up my backpack and cleared customs, I headed straight to the cellular phone office at the airport. All I would need is to purchase a SIM card, stick it in the phone and be happily be on my way, connected. It didn’t turn out quite that way.
The young woman at the shop stuck her SIM card in the BlackBerry and waited and waited for the software to download. But instead what we saw was an error message, which she said showed that the phone was not actually unlocked and therefore would not work. To have it unlocked I would have to take it to any local telephone carrier, such as COMCEL, or to some black market operation downtown. She warned to be wary of those underground operators.
So much for Verizon‘s instructions on how to unlock the phone. But no time to mess with this now, I was so hungry I felt nauseated. I threw my backpack on and marched over to the nearest café where I had a beer, a slice of lemon poppy seed cake, bottled water and then a cappuccino. Nourished and feeling like my old self, I went outside to catch a taxi to Mar’s neighborhood and instructed the taxi driver to find a COMCEL near her address so I could deal with my phone situation. It was pouring rain and some streets were flooded. It was also my introduction to the crazy driving patterns in Bogota. Someone please tell me why draw clear lanes in the streets when nobody stays within them? I hung on for dear life the whole time as my taxi dodged all manner of speeding cars, trucks and buses and my taxi driver again and again came within inches of slamming into the back of whatever vehicle was in front of him. Welcome to driving in Latin America. Kind of reminds me of Miami.
We got to Mar’s place; the taxi driver pointed it out, and then moved on to find a COMCEL store. He swore there had to be one in the neighborhood. But we drove in circles and had to expand our search a bit far beyond Mar’s building to find one. I got out, paid the driver, threw my backpack over my shoulders and went inside. No, said the woman at COMCEL, this particular store is not equipped to unlock phones.
“Go to the other store five blocks away and they’ll take care of you,” she said. “They’re a larger store and have the ability to unlock your phone.”
So back into the pouring rain I went, walking with my gear that was getting heavier by the minute, dodging man,, machine and beast on the congested sidewalks filled with pedestrians, people just standing in the way, street vendors, bicycles and a pair of burros . I was wet from sweat and rain – chilly only moments earlier. Bogota is a bit on the damp side for my taste. Whatever happened to summer?
Made it to COMCEL, explained the situation to the receptionist, even showed her the phone, and she issued me a number and instructed that I should wait for my number to be called. After more than 45 minutes, bingo! I walked up to the technician; he took one look at my phone and said “that phone won’t work in Colombia. It’s a BlackBerry Storm, it’s not compatible with our system.” What do you mean it’s not compatible? “It’s a BlackBerry Storm; it’s touchscreen; it stopped working with our system several months ago.”
Oh-kay. So what should I do? He said buy a new phone from COMCEL or to save money buy an unlocked one from Exito, the local equivalent of Wal-Mart, and bring it back to COMCEL, where they would then be able to activate it. Hmmm…buy a new phone, eh? Well, that’s what I ended up doing a couple of days later. But instead of COMCEL, I went with its cheaper competition, TIGO. And four days later I finally got simple instructions on how to make calls and send texts internationally. Just dialing direct does not work. That would be too easy, wouldn’t it?
Every TIGO representative I consulted gave widely different and more complex instructions on how to make international calls. Today, the geekiest among them showed me actually how easy it is. Dial star and a five-digit code just before the number. Hit send. Voila! Glad to have a phone that works.
ABOUT MY FIRST HOST
So came the hour and I called Mar using the landline at COMCEL and told her I’d be right over. I was in the neighborhood. When I got there she greeted me with a big smile, a kiss on the cheek and a hearty hug. She seemed genuinely happy to have me there. But this meetup almost did not happen. After she had gladly accepted my request through couchsurfing to stay with her for my first three days in Bogota, she seemed to have fallen off the face of the Earth weeks later and did not respond to my subsequent requests for her address. All I had was her phone number. I wrote and asked for her address again and got nothing, right up to the day prior to my departure for Bogota. It was at that point I started to look at other housing options, such as hostels and hotels and even other couch surfers (a bit late in the game to be requesting a couch, though). After a last-ditch message asking if she was getting my e-mails and why no response, a reply! Mar said she was just very busy at work. She said she could still host me and e-mailed me her address. Cool.
I must admit, I wasn’t pleased with Mar’s excuse. After all, she had popped into the site several times a week and had read my e-mails. Did she have cold feet about hosting? I would have accepted that and moved on. So from the jumpstart I was a bit concerned about how we would get along. In my back pocket I kept the name and address of a local hostel that came highly recommended by a couch surfer who had stayed with me in Miami. His name is Yannis. A lot more on him later.
My concern was for nothing. Mar turned out to be the most fantastic host! She was funny and fun. Very talkative and informative. And a very active member of the local couchsurfing community. Through Mar, I met some other wonderful people, several of them also members of couchsurfing, but many of them not. We explored Bogota together, hit some popular local spots and generally had a blast. On my first night, she had about a dozen friends come over and an instant party was on in her large duplex with a fantastic patio.
Mar and I talked about all sorts of topics, but of course mostly about Colombia. After many conversations I learned that she has very strong opinions about the United States (not very positive) and its role in Colombia and the rest of the world. She left little doubt she doesn’t care much for U.S. foreign policy. Well, join crowd Mar 🙂
I know I will get an earful about the U.S. everywhere I go, and I know our government doesn’t always do right by the world, but as Mar spoke, I couldn’t help but wonder if she had thought of some of the good that the U.S. does for underdeveloped countries around the world? I see plenty of my tax dollars flying off overseas. All too often, some are quick to criticize, dismissing the U.S. as 100 percent evil when the reality is it’s always among the first countries, if not the first, to assist when there’s a need. Just my two cents U.S. bashers.
All and all, Mar was a great host right to the last minute. She even allowed me to stay an extra day, as my next Colombian host, Mauricio, could not host me until a day later. I am now at Mauricio’s place in the geographic center of Bogota, and he is also fantastic. Colombian hospitality, my friends, is second to none.