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Bogota: Fire and Ice

Six days later I check out of El Dorado under £30 for 6 days. If Wiltshire Council hadn’t changed the rules in their favour and started charging Council Tax on empty properties then I could afford to live here almost solely on the income of my flat. As it is, I’m paying off the banks and the government and then bleeding away my savings in order to survive. After a Mango smoothy at the market, £0.65, I flip-flop my way up to the bus terminal and board the luxurious Berlinas bus to Bogota. Power and WiFi means I can liaise with my AirBnB host along the way.

The bus stops at Vado Real, rocking across the shale covered car park leaving a dust cloud in our wake. The passengers start to disembark after the driver says something in Spanish but I stay behind. Later, he beckons for me to move. It seems he is on a break and I absorb some of the sun’s warmth to take back into the airconditioning when we board later.
In the cafe, I spot Mike and Melissa. They are on their way back to San Gil. The small world feels smaller with each chance meeting.
With the driver suitably refuelled, we all clamber back onto the bus. The route to Bogota has views of the towns and countryside only normally seen from aircraft as the bus winds its way through the Andes.

5pm arriving on the outskirts of Bogota, the traffic is slow and the grey clouds low in the sky threatening rain. Only the clouds are not so much low as the city is high, eight and a half thousand feet above sea level.

The rain starts to fall and crowds of motorcyclists dismount under the bridges to don their waterproofs. The dark wet cityscape is reminiscent of cities in the higher latitudes of Europe: Cold, wet and busy.

Two hours later we were pulling into the bus terminal. The rain had stopped and left a sheen on the roads reflecting the city lights in the spaces between the traffic. My taxi driver “No habla Ingles,” and I no Espanol. I’m learning Spanish enough to be able to say “My name is Pablo and this is my grandmother’s horse,” but not much of anything useful. I show him the address on the AirBnB page on my phone. Clicking the link opens Google Maps and message “Address not found.”

I find the location by deleting the word ‘piso’ out of the address and the driver borrows my phone to home in on the marker on the map. He drops me 100 metres past the address and points further down the road. I start to walk the other direction and a barrage of Spanish comes forth which abates when I turn the other way crossing the road saying “Gracias.” I wait round the corner of a bakery until he drives away and resume my original course toward the marker on Google Maps.

My host opens the door and I’m shown to the studio on the 4th floor. It’s self-contained and comfortable but access from the street necessitates ringing the doorbell which puts me off going out. It’s 8pm and hunger takes me out into the street for a Pizza and coke (No cerveza) at the corner bakery I was hiding at less than an hour before and return satiated to settle down for the night.

I’m in Bogota without a plan. Sightseeing is not my thing and I wonder what I should do next…

Awaking at 6am as the airlines resume their departure and arrival at the airport next door, I check the time and nestle under the covers for warmth. It feels like an early spring morning in Britain.

Estefania is picking me up at 10am. This is her mother’s house so I’ll be moving to Estefania’s 12th floor apartment for the following days. Estefania arrives with her husband Edwin and we communicate via Google translate. I suggest that I want to buy a hammock and it is related to me that foreigners get charged top dollar and that we should all go together and negotiate local’s prices.

I don’t like shopping in company and, anyway, I’m not in the mood, so I decline for today and opt for some online work in the apartment while Estefania and Edwin go out for a few hours and I lock myself in as instructed.

The apartment is new and modern. Security is tight which prevents my return into the complex without the company of the hosts, should I wander out. I expected a bit more freedom and independence but the family are friendly and accommodating, which makes up for it.

I settle down and catch up a little on writing but start to feel more tired and cold. Bogota is not known for its warmth, and I snuggled under the blankets.

The next day, I’m not feeling right. Fatigue and a fever. Burning hot above the covers shaking with icy chills under the blankets. The happy medium is balanced on an unattainable knife edge

Estefania brings me some food and a small glass of water. The language barrier is a heavy one. I’d like some more water but the effort to ask is too great and I fall back to sleep instead. Everything stops, I have no energy and spend most of my time sleeping and my AirBnB time slowly dwindles away.

A search of hostelworld brings a nice looking hostel in Usaquen, Rua 116, and Edwin helps me organise an Uber ride. I’m on my way. Yesterday, I felt I was getting better but today, not so much. Even so, It felt better to be up and moving than dissolving in a hot and cold bed.

Rua 116 is in a quiet back street and I sign in at reception: top bunk in a dorm on the top floor. If I have altitude sickness, this won’t help. The stairs are an effort to climb and I pile everything on the bunk and take advantage of my current mobility to go back downstairs and wander around the block. I find a coffee bar on the corner of the main road. This could be a ‘Costa’ or ‘Starbucks’ in any city in the world. I could be in London. I’m cold: the only person wearing shorts and flip-flops. It’s 13C. Normal for Bogota, and I take my Latte upstairs to work out my game plan. I have no energy for shopping or sightseeing. I want to get warm and get some energy but I don’t feel hungry.

Back at the dorm, I burrow beneath the covers and shiver myself warm before falling asleep. Each time I fall asleep, I enter the same dream world, if I dream a particular way, it is shared for those around me. I don’t understand it but the dream and its world feel every bit as real as this waking moment. I awake in the dark drenched in cold sweat, bound in clammy sheets: a dolphin caught in a fishing net.

There has to be a cause for this and Google comes out. Yellow fever, no. Malaria, no. Dengue, no. Trawling through the fear-mongering sites, one needs a tough mental constitution to remain buoyant…

Altitude sickness? Bogota is at 8,600ft elevation, the fourth highest capital city in the world. It shouldn’t be a problem as San Gil is 4,500ft. I never got altitude sickness from Cartegena (sea level) to San Gil (4,500ft). I was already over half way up. No, the symptoms weren’t a match. Dehydration? Although fever wasn’t mentioned, the other symptoms coincided.

I backtracked through my recent movements. AirBnB, I had a few small glasses of water but had always been thirsty for more. The bus from San Gil, no water for six hours. Thirty minute walk to bus station in the sun; I had a mango juice for that.

Eldorado hostel, the water filter broke a few days before leaving and I was drinking the free coffee but not much water. The Kambo session at Nuevos Horizontes. I had plenty of water during but after?… not sure.

The firefighting? I gave up my water bottle for the cause and didn’t see it after that. Perhaps visits to the hose with a glass had been fewer than I expected.

Yes, it was all adding up. A steady decline in water intake over a long period. Perhaps this was the reason for being drawn to Bogota. I had no real interest in the city. The sudden altitude increase bringing my condition to a critical head. Coincidence that I was bedbound directly across the main road from the hospital. Even so, a list of rehydration items was compiled and I shuffled my way to the supermarket near the hostel for: coconut water, sea-salt, bottled water, bananas, yoghurt and strawberries. And sweated my way back to my drying bedding. It may be cool here but things dry out quick; including humans.

I optimistically quaffed and munched my way through my remedies, slowly getting sick of the flavour of yoghurt and coconut water. I felt nauseated but a little better apart from the relentless neuralgic headache that seemed ever present, and appeared immune to paracetamol.

I awake from a hallucinogenic nightmare. There are times I’ve dreamt I’ve died and been relatively happy about it. Not this one. A multicoloured hell and so many things left incomplete. It was becoming light and reality was slowly re-establishing itself in my mind to my relief.

The expected improvement from my rehydration wasn’t forthcoming. I was perhaps feeling slightly worse. My physical strength was quickly deserting my limbs. I lowered myself out of the bunk and made my way down the four flights to breakfast. At reception, I changed my bed to a lower bunk in the same room and asked about calling for a doctor. The receptionist called straight away and told me two hours and $100,000. Wow, this sounded like the states. XE.com told me $100K Colombian was about £25. The doctor was ordered.

The doctor could speak no English but my dorm buddy who was there securing dual citizenship for his one-year-old son thankfully agreed to translate.

I had severe and extreme dehydration plus signs of an early throat infection. Heart and blood pressure were good. I was prescribed some concentrated electrolyte-rich coconut water for three days and a concentrated antiseptic gargle. I was to sip small amounts of this special coconut water every 5 minutes in order to absorb the nutrients. A three-day mission. Each day I poured 10 or 15ml amounts into a small cup and downed them one by one and set a 5 minute timer between each. The bottle was 400ml so it was a three to four hour task. I felt good about that as it kept me focussed and felt I was optimistically on the road to recovery.

Day by day, I felt a little better and strength returned to my limbs. I had to remember to drink water too. The tap water in Bogota is clean enough if a little over chlorinated. By the second night, I felt well enough to go out to dinner but could only manage half the Thai Green Curry. Not cheap by Colombian standards. Still, it was some nutrition and fluids all in one.

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