I’m pretty sure most people still think of Colombia as if it was still 1982 and Pablo Escobar was still running around, setting people on fire.
“Isn’t Colombia… dangerous?”
No, no, no. You’re thinking of back during the Cocaine Cowboys days, back when-
HOLY SHIT THERE’S A DUDE JUGGLING MACHETES RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY TAXI
That is sincerely impressive. He’s standing on another dude’s shoulders, just juggling away with them machetes, in the brief moment that the light is red, in hopes of collecting a few loose bills from bored motorists.
I know we’re all proud of America and our good ol’ American Work Ethic and all that, but think about this for a second: Do Americans juggle machetes when they’re down on their luck? They do not. You’re lucky if you get a misspelled “WILL WORK 4FOOD” sign or, at absolute maximum effort, some long story about how the guy had 17 heart attacks and his medicine costs $12,000 a month and your spare change is appreciated. (Side note: Our country is deeply screwed up). Never do you see someone decide “You know what? I’m going to dazzle these motherfuckers into giving me their pocket money with my poignant disregard for life and death.” Hat’s off, Colombia.
Most stop lights were like this, just a sudden chaotic melee of knives, things on fire, just all kinds of shit flying through the air as the seconds ticked down to the next green light. Amazing.
Also, there were some poop statues.
And a building that was on drugs.
Before I knew it I was being dropped off at my “hotel” (I’m beginning to realize that I type “hotel” in quotes more often than I type it unironically, I may need to think about my travel budgeting) in the old section of Bogota. I think I thought it was a hostel when I booked it, I think it was even called a hostel, I think hostel was even in the name, but it was actually just a big ancient hotel that I had all to myself. Just me and the owner, whose English was no so good. This just added charm to our interactions though, as my Spanish is so bad he kept thinking I wanted him to call me a taxi every time I told him anything.
I didn’t have much time for this frivolity, though, as Argentinian airport BS had eaten significantly into what little time I had Colombia, and I needed to get on this shit. I dropped off my bag in my room, careful to not step on any of the nails protruding from the 1800s era wood plank floors, and jogged downstairs and out into the street.
Oh… what? Bogota has an Anime Sushi Café? Well played, Colombia!
And John Wayne as an ear of corn? Solid.
I hustled down the street toward the one thing I knew I couldn’t miss in Bogota, the Gold Museum. Museo del Oro. I had to get there before they closed for the night, since my flight out of Colombia was leaving early the next morning.
I strutted up to the museum doors and BONG oh dammit they’re locked. Bummer. A security guard crossed the room and gestured to let me know this wasn’t the entrance, dummy. Oh! Cool! I hustled around to the actual front of the museum, got in line and- Nope, sorry we don’t take credit cards. Shit I need Colombian money.
Across the street to an ATM booth, which rejected my card. Shit! I had just been through two solid weeks of scraping along not having any cash at all, due to Argentina’s ongoing financial collapse. No ATMs in Argentina would give me any cash at all, and I had picked a terrible trip to decide “You know what? I never use the U.S. cash I always bring on every trip, I just withdraw the local currency when I get there. I’m not going to waste my time going to the ATM before this trip!” And that’s how I went through two weeks traipsing across the globe only having $10 to my name.
The Bogota airport ATMs had been the same story. But wait, now I’m in a whole new country. Argentina’s giant mess holds no sway here. Why can’t I get cash? Hmmm. I’ll have to call my bank. I was dialing my cell phone when I suddenly realized that Parque Santlander, the square I was walking through in front of the museum, was absolutely packed with pickpockets and other con artists, just hovering around and waiting for opportunities. Awwwwwwesome.
“Hello Mr Traverse, yes, we’ve locked your bank card because there were 47 unsuccessful attempts to use it over the last two weeks.”
“Arrg. Yeah look Argentina is collapsing, it’s a long story. Can we just reset my card?”
“Sure, just read me your card number, social security number, and-”
Shazbot. I weaved my way through the crowd of sketchy predators, plotting out a figure-8 path I could walk continuously around the square while I was on the phone, keeping all of the assembled peril at arm’s length as I whispered my deepest financial secrets into the phone.
“Great. So we’ll just need to go through each of those 47 transactions individually to make sure they were you before we unlock your card-”
Oh Colombia, you’re hilarious. I promise not to misspell your name with a U for at least ten more minutes.
Many, many, many ridiculous minutes later I had a wad of Colombian cash in hand and was slipping into the museum just before it closed, the cruising pickpockets thankfully locked out behind me.
The Museo del Oro contains the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world. All from pre-Columbian indigenous cultures, and it serves as a fascinating window into the lives and minds of the people who lived in what is now Colombia, before the Spanish conquest.
It’s funny, as I write this, I suddenly realize that it seems “natural” and “normal” to me that the people of Central and South America speak Spanish, as if this is some integral part of them, when really it’s just an artifact of Spain being the country that conquered these lands, morphing the many and varied indigenous people into a living hybrid of Spanish culture and whatever still remains of their original roots. Over time this has formed our collective impression of what people who speak Spanish look like… but… they’re not Spanish. They could just as easily be speaking French or English or Dutch if history had gone slightly differently, and our sense of these people and associations with those languages would be completely different than they are now. It strikes me now that Native Americans in the U.S. speaking English is very much the same thing. So strange.
The exhibits in the museum did an incredible job of teasing you into the worldview of the indigenous peoples, the easy appeal of the beautiful gold artifacts drew you in on a surface level, but the deeper value of the place for me was the journey it took me on, into seeing the world in a completely different way.
I’ll no doubt do a real half-assed job of passing that gift on to you, now months later as I try to remember what a bunch of little plaques in a museum said, but that’s life. Many of the artifacts represented sacred ceremonies, where the shamans of the tribe dressed as specific animals and took on their characteristics. When I was younger I would have interpreted this in a purely symbolic way, but I’ve had enough reality-warping higher dimensional experiences in my own life now that I read it as something real, the shamans stepping into another dimensional aspect of themselves from beyond the bounds of this reality, and bringing back wisdom and insight from that place and the experience.
As I read about the beliefs of the shamans and the initiation process young boys went through to follow this path in life, meditating in dark caves for months on end, I felt like I was melding into a visceral understanding of all of it, that in reading about the ceremonies I was projecting my own mind into the abstract spaces the shamans had accessed, and experiencing it with them across time.
The exhibits explained that the indigenous people believed that animals were messengers to them from the different realms. Animals that lived in caves were coming to them from the depths of the inner Earth where the creator Gods resided. Birds visited them from the heavens.
I’m sure I’d heard of this kind of concept before, but standing there, staring into the light reflected in the curving golden forms, it was like I was seeing the reality of this the way the people back then did, not the way a 21st century Westerner would interpret it through his own cultural and historical lens. Animals are indeed coming to us from different worlds, interacting with different energies and elementals depending on where they live their lives. Surely we could learn about all of these places from them, if we’re able to make ourselves clear enough to see what’s there.
Maybe I was here, back then? Maybe that’s why I was able to tap into the experience so fully just looking at these pieces. It’s hard to say. But I was beyond mesmerized and deeply grateful for the experience.
The centerpiece of the museum is the Muisca Raft, a small ornate gold piece depicting an offering ceremony where the chief of the Muisca people would cover himself in gold and jump off a raft into Lake Guatavita, as an offering to the gods. This ceremony was called El Dorado by Spanish observers (“The Golden One”) and the legend that sprang from this tale gradually mutated into the idea of an entire city of gold.
Whoops, I think I made a wrong turn by the stairs and stepped into another dimension…
Also maybe don’t read the plaques out loud if you don’t want to raise any Muiscan spirits from the dead, guys. Just sayin’…
Time to go.
Leaving the museum in the dark, I made my way across town to a hole-in-the-wall vegan restaurant that I wanted to hit for dinner before it closed. I walked through empty streets and congested intersections full of people watching some kind of loud live performance I didn’t understand in the slightest.
Bogota, your graffiti is on point.
Eventually I found the shoebox-sized restaurant, and a Colombian grandmother sweetly and generously made me a bountiful dinner of really terrible vegan Colombian food. I tipped generously and slipped out the door before she could notice that I hadn’t finished eating Jesus what even was that?
Standing out in front of the restaurant waiting for my Uber, I watched the locals stream by. I smiled and “hola”ed everyone I could. An elderly Colombian woman walked by, and without missing a beat, responded to my hola with a hilariously nonchalant fist-bump. I was so taken aback that I think I messed up the rest of the elaborate high-five jive handshake she had planned, and the only thing that kept me from laughing out loud was my shock and genuine concern that reality may have just broken.
And just like that, she was gone. You’re too cool for words, Bogota Jive Grandma.
My ride came and I was off to Monserrate, the 10,000-foot-high sacred mountain that looms over all of Bogota, advertising the small white Monserrate Monastery sitting on its peak, which you can see from anywhere in the city.
During the colonial era, climbing Monserrate became a religious pilgrimage. I was keen to take part, except that the one piece of advice I’d read about Bogota is that walking the wooded footpath up Monserrate at night is the #1 best way to get mugged in Bogota. Okay, it’s the funicular for me.
The funicular is a bizarre diagonal train/cable car hybrid that snakes its way up the mountain through a rough tunnel bored through the rock. Going up it at night was cool as shit, like a slightly dangerous Disneyland ride where an animatronic Jesus might sing at the end.
Up top you disembark and follow a winding uphill path past gigantic hummingbirds…
And the King of Monserrate...
And finally, past many, many dramatically lighted scenes from Jesus’ Bogus Journey on the day of the Passion…
Up top is the monastery, which was closed as hell…
And a black dog and a brown dog, wonderfully named Negro and Marrón…
But as wonderful as the dogs were, you weren’t up there for any of that shit. You were up there for the view of Bogota spread out before you like an extra-terrestrial lava flow running off the edge of eternity…
Wow. Best city view in the world? Might be. I feel like I’m looking out into some kind of galaxy, a nebula spiraling out to the end of space. This is worth the trip to Colombia right here.
One of the skyscrapers in downtown Bogota was turning its lights on and off in sequence, which created the bizarre effect of making it look like the building itself was blinking in and out of reality, as one of the light patterns looked like you were seeing through the building to the street lights behind it, as if it had disappeared completely. WINK. Big-ass building gone. WINK. Building back.
Nearby, huge angel statutes added an extra element to the heavenly expanse of lights spread out behind them.
After a long time spent marveling at the view, I remembered how early the next morning my flight was leaving, and so it was back into the funicular, descending from the heavens as if we were on our way to the very center of the Earth.
In the dark early morning as I was leaving, there was some excitement when the hotel owner lost my room key about ten seconds after I handed it to him, and then claimed I’d never given it to him. I responded that this was hilarious, and he countered by calling me a taxi I didn’t need.
The very next day, massive protests against Colombia’s corrupt president broke out, starting in the exact neighborhood where I’d been staying. I thought about energy work and what we trigger in the places we pass through, when they’re ready to tip. I thought back to sitting in a café in Argentina a few days before, watching the protests rage right where I’d been in La Paz in Bolivia, and flashed back to right before the trip, when I’d been watching the protests in Santiago, Chile, where I’d been the year before.
Look I’m just saying don’t blame me for all this shit, I just said the guy’s mustache looked stupid. What you do with that information is on you, Colombia.
This part has absolutely nothing to do with my trip to Colombia, but it happened right before the trip, it’s funny and I don’t have anywhere else to write about it, so here you go.
I like spicy foods. A few years back something came out called the “One Chip Challenge” where a company made an insanely spicy corn chip and YouTube filled up with people trying to eat this single chip without dying, dozens of videos with charming titles like “Dumbest thing we’ve ever done!” and “ONE CHIP CHALLENGE **Vomit Alert**”
One news anchor threw up on live TV while attempting the One Chip Challenge. Google filled up with questions like “Can you die from doing the One Chip Challenge?” People barfed and couldn’t breathe and had to wash it down with a Tide Pod. It was madness.
The chip went all the way viral and then you couldn’t buy it anywhere. I failed to get in on the ground floor of this Chipocalypse and sadly missed my opportunity to set my stupid head on fire.
A couple of years passed.
Then one day I was doing a Google search related to a running joke I have with my friends about a series of imaginary horror movies where the antagonist is a car-sized deadly walnut known only as Death Nut. Sample titles: Death Nut 5: Eyes Wide Nut. Death Nut 6: Pistachio My God. Death Nut 7: Nut Without My Daughter.
To my shock, Google informed me that Death Nut is now a real thing.
What the- Oh my God. Somehow the universe had killed two birds with one nut, just for me. Not only had my friends’ imaginations manifested in the real world to my delight, like a Stephen King story come to life, someone had also created a successor to the One Chip Challenge that I could actually buy!
Hmm, looks like they one-upped the One Chip Challenge a little bit. Actually, they ten-upped it. More than. Spiciness is measured in something called Scoville units. A really hot jalapeno is about 8,000 Scoville units. A habanero tops out at 350,000. The One Chip Challenge chip was 1.5 million Scoville units. Damn.
The Death Nut Challenge is a series of five packets of nuts of escalating spice. The final packet, the titular Death Nuts, are 13 million Scoville units. Wait, that can’t be right- Oh, yep. 13 million. Christ on fire.
For another point of reference, shooting police pepper spray straight into your mouth would be about 4.5 million Scoville units. So this is like that time you were on COPS, times three.
How do you even get to 13 million Scoville units? There aren’t peppers in existence anywhere near that hot. It turns out they distill the capsaicin from peppers down to crystalline form and then coat the nuts with it. Neat.
My brother Aster was coming into town to visit me from the UK, and to my delight he was up for the Death Nut Challenge. I ordered two sets.
Setting up for the challenge looked hilariously like we were about to shoot heroin.
Gloves were necessary because accidentally touching your eye after touching one of the nuts would mean a trip straight to the hospital. But of course putting them into your soft, sensitive mouth is no problem at all.
We each took a slug of Pepto to prevent the nuts from burning straight through our stomachs, balls and the floor of my apartment like Xenomorph blood. Aster poured out two glasses of oat milk just to tempt and torture us while we were doing the challenge.
The rules of the challenge are simple: You open a packet of nuts, chew them for 15 seconds, swallow, and then wait 90 seconds before moving on to the next packet. After the fifth packet, if you’re still alive, you have to wait five long minutes to complete the challenge. You can’t drink or eat anything else during the entire process. You are allowed to cry.
I’d watched several YouTube videos of people doing the challenge and read a lot of customer reviews online. A lot of people just threw the nuts straight up, the body’s emergency systems automatically kicking in, in the face of severe user error. Many people drooled involuntarily. Others spent the better part of a week in the bathroom. Some ended up in the hospital. Many, many people bailed before they got to the fifth packet of nuts.
Most seemed in agreement that the nuts didn’t get REALLY hot until the fifth packet. It was a gentle ramp up. Okay, cool. Let’s start!
We both knocked pack a packet of the #1 nuts and chewed. Okay, a little spice, nothing too- Oh. Oh my.
I began to hiccup involuntarily. My body clearly had no idea what had just hit it and was just mashing buttons on the control panel in a frantic, confused attempt to deal with it.
Oh Jesus. This has never happened to me before. And this was -HIC!- the first packet of nuts! The ones that weren’t supposed to be shit! I might -HIC!- I might be in trouble. I may have made a terrible mistake.
Beep beep beep beep! My kitchen timer went off. It was time for the second set of nuts. Hoookay!
Hand to God, I couldn’t taste packets 2-4. My face was just a dumpster fire straight from the first packet of nuts and you can’t set garbage on fire that’s already on fire. Each packet of nuts was just like flinging another tire into the Doorway to Hell.
I think the heat ramped up a little more gradually for Aster, as opposed to the way it hit me like a Mack truck straight out of the gate. The fourth packet of nuts seemed to kick him in the everything a little harder than all the ones that came before.
Oh my God. We’re already at the fifth packet. This is it. I think I might be experiencing lost time. Hopefully if any aliens took me they had some oat milk. Okay, time to jump out of the plane. We cracked open the fifth packet and knocked them back.
This is an experience I can best describe as being stabbed in the face. Repeatedly. Only I think if you were actually stabbed in the face a bunch of times, you would quickly go numb and lose your ability to feel each additional stab. Not so in this case. It was like getting stabbed in the face a bunch of times and miraculously healing just in time for each fresh stab. This must be what it’s like for Wolverine to do a stupid Internet food challenge.
The major problem at this point was breathing. Each breath was like shooting a flamethrower straight down into your lungs, the spice somehow becoming aerosolized and invading each delicate inner cavity of your frail body. And God have mercy on you if you swallowed any of your saliva. My teeth were somehow spicy.
Actually, breathing was just my major problem. Aster’s problem was that he was drooling all over the place.
This is not a joke at all, Aster didn’t even realize he was drooling until I asked what in the hell was all over the coffee table. This shit was going bananas.
The five-minute reign of the Death Nuts stretched on like a red eternity. It felt like holding a Pilates pose or being a Trump. I had to open the sliding glass door and let in the cold October air. When our time in hell finally ended, we knocked back the oat milk, which washed over our digestive systems in a wave of sweet, sweet relief. Ahh.
I reached out for something on the table, but my hand didn’t respond. I felt my astral hand reach out and touch the table. WHOA. Then a second later my physical hand followed suit and reached out to the table. What the fu-
This continued for the next ten minutes, my consciousness part way out of my body and the physical part reacting on a multi-second delay to my brain’s commands. What. The. Hell. That is some trippy shit.
Once my various bodies got their shit together I got up off the floor and sat on the couch. I could feel my conscious awareness rotate around, like it was spinning, while my body stayed in the same spot. The room swirled around as Aster and I shot the breeze and compared symptoms.
The fire that had raged through my entire body seemed to have had a cleansing effect. I felt like I’d been fasting for days as the light, high energy wooshed through me. Okay, I might be dying but this is pretty interesting.
After about an hour, things had calmed down enough that we thought it was a good idea to go out for dinner. What effect would it have to pile food on top of the nuclear detonation we’d just set off inside our bodies? One way to find out!
While I was ordering at the counter of our neighborhood vegan restaurant, Aster disappeared for a minute. Huh, where’d he- Oh well, anyway, we’ll have this and this and this.
Aster was waiting for me at the table and we made short work of everything the waitress brought. The food was okay, honestly a little bland. When the waitress asked how our meal was I told her I thought the food was a little plain. Huh, she responded.
Ten seconds later, something terrible happened inside me. OOF! I felt like I’d been shot in the gut. What the fuck was THAT? I suddenly broke out in a profuse sweat all over my entire body. That’s weird- The room swam around me. Uh-oh. Aster I’ll be right back.
I staggered to the men’s room. Yeah, those nuts might be on their way out. Kneeling on the floor, nothing came out. I collapsed onto the floor and awkwardly peeled off layers of clothing as bizarre-smelling sweat poured out of my body.
Oh Jesus. I suddenly realized this was the nuts moving from my besieged stomach into my virgin small intestine. I could actually feel them! I’d never felt anything in my small intestine before, I didn’t know there were nerve endings in there. But there are. I mean, if you stab a red hot poker from hell into there you can feel it, a hot bullet continuing to spin away inside you.
I laid on the tile floor, looking up at the ceiling, thinking seriously for the first time that this may not have been a good idea. At least it was a really clean men’s room. Thank Spicy God for small favors.
I laughed out loud as I heard the staff in the kitchen next door preparing to close the restaurant for the night. This is going to be a hilarious conversation if they can’t close the restaurant because I’m dying on their bathroom floor, literally minutes after I complained about their food being too bland.
It suddenly dawned on me that the food was probably bland because I had torched out every last one of my taste buds. Huh.
The ceiling rotated around as the bizarre funky sweat poured out of me. I’m either cleansing deep childhood toxins or this is what dying smells like.
And then, fairly quickly and completely miraculously, the pain nuts moved to a less sensitive part of my small intestine, and I could sit up again. Hey, keen! I gathered up my stripped-off clothes from the floor and made my way back to the table where my brother was waiting.
“When you left I was wondering if your bathroom trip was nut-related. When I saw you come back with half your clothes gone, I knew it was.”
It turned out a smaller version of the same catastrophe had hit my brother while I was ordering the food. Huh. I headed outside, not feeling the cold, the miracle nut furnace still burning hot inside me. I asked my brother to drive since I might have already died.
Back home, the heat leveled off and I found myself cocooned on the couch under a mound of blankets. Can’t talk. Coming down.
The next day, my brother paid the piper on the back end when the nuts made their exit on the rear stage.
“What’s that like?”
“Like you wiped your ass with Tiger Balm.”
To my brother’s great disappointment, I never hit the Tiger Balm phase myself, I think because the nuts left my system in astral form while I was lying on that restaurant bathroom floor.
Or hell, maybe I did die, who knows? If so, you’ve been warned:
The food in heaven’s kinda bland.