I arrived by bus. Well, technically two buses. A combination of stale Spanish and bad directions left me vulnerable to the Colombian countryside and the tiny buses that cruise back and forth between the rolling hills of Guatavita and the metropolis of Bogota.
The directions were to get off the bus in front of the church. The church. As if there were only one in the expansive countryside outside of Bogota. About seven out of 10 of the bus stops on my little sojourn were in front of a church.
I was given to repeatedly asking fellow passengers the one worded, three syllabled question, “Guatavita?”
“No, es Guasco.”
Where the hell is Guatavita? But my anxiety was only hovering on the periphery. My attention was mainly held by the groves of eucalyptus trees, the fields of sheep and cows, neatly squared in by handmade wooden fences, and the ever-present green and gold sprawling hills. Here and there, the countryside was spotted by a dark water lake, or swampy flats.
This was not the Colombia of my imagination. I had brought plenty of warm weather clothes, but I had also prepared for cold weather. The jacket I had tightly wrapped around myself in the afternoon sun streaming through the bus windows told me I was correct in preparing for all weather.
I finally found The church. This church did actually deserve a capitalized pronoun. It was a massive white stucco compound that used to house a school as well. What used to be the school is now shops, museums, and a hospital. You would be hard pressed to be lost in the tiny town of Guatavita, but if you did find yourself disoriented, you could always spot the tall clock tower rising from the still-active church.
After walking circles around the church to find Restaurante La Ruana, where I would be volunteering for the next two weeks to earn my keep, I finally spied it tucked away into the corner of the plaza. It looked very unimposing. So much so that I thought I must be at the wrong place. But a quick rap on the door that echoed deeply down the long hallways was replied by a loud, “Quien es?”
I was introduced to Danuta, a middle-aged Polish woman who had been traveling solo for ten months. She spoke no English, but after almost a year in South America, her Spanish was decent. Not that I could tell if she made mistakes…
As the two of us worked, washing windows, sweeping and mopping the floors, we spoke our own dialect of Spanish. Sometimes I questioned if we were having the same conversation. I wondered what we must sound like to native Spanish speakers.
“I to write for lunch. But only one hour.”
“What you write for lunch?”
“No, only one hour.”
“Yes, but why to write?”
“I like lunch fast.”
-Laughter from native Spanish speakers in the background.
After our first day of scrubbing, washing, and painting, Danuta showed me the tiny pueblo. We walked down to the lake that provided the picturesque background for Guatavita. The lake was massive and very dark in color, almost black. While Danuta lead the way on a wild goose chase through thickets and barbed wire fences, occasionally exclaiming “Que lindo!” I watched the sun set magnificently over the dark water lake, looking for all the world like gold flakes had settled on the surface of the water. People spend years searching for El Dorado, but I had stumbled upon it in this sleepy Colombian pueblo.