Bogotá, Colombia 1973
It should have been a forty-five minute mid-afternoon bus ride. Heading out of Bogotá’s El Centro, the bus filled, emptied, and filled again with silent Colombianos dressed in black and brown, many wearing ruanas and black felt hats. I was the standout, the Norte Americano, and I felt my difference acutely each time I braced myself against the cracked window and hugged the edge of my seat as the bus lurched down potholed roads. I caught the stares directed my way, mostly shy, some blatant, and just a few, hostile. I wanted to announce, “I’m an English teacher, a Cuerpo de Paz voluntaria, on my way to teach a class.” But I said nothing.
My teaching partner, another Peace Corps volunteer, was sick that day, and I had decided to travel alone to Barrio Restrepo where a small group of young women met for class once a week. In 1973, Restrepo was a poor, predominately Communist-leaning barrio where North Americans rarely visited. We held our class in the basement room of the ACJ, the local equivalent of the YWCA. Our students were eager to learn English so they could get jobs as bi-lingual secretaries.
I went alone that day with some reservations, not because I was afraid of the people, but because I was obviously pregnant and somewhat uncomfortable. I had been warned against going alone. My Spanish was passable but not fluent. With my Gringa accent I hoped I could make myself understood if I needed help.
Since most streets were unmarked, I wasn’t sure where I was and, after nearly an hour on the bus, I realized I was lost. I asked the man next to me if he recognized my destination, but he shook his head and stared studiously at the filthy bus floor. If I left my seat, someone else would quickly take it, and since the aisle was jammed with other passengers, it would take time to get to the driver. I was in a dilemma.
The bus slowly emptied, and finally I rose to ask the driver if we were near Restrepo. He was a slight young man who seemed as tired as his passengers. “We passed Restrepo back there,” he said and jerked his head towards the left. Then he looked at me again and seemed to reach a decision. “Sit down. We’ll go back soon.”
Feeling uneasy, but without many alternatives, I found a seat halfway down the aisle. My baby was kicking furiously, almost as if she were angry with me. “I don’t blame you,” I thought, “I shouldn’t have come alone today.”
As the bus meandered from stop to stop, the city streets changed from rough pavement to dirt roads and the rows of small stores and houses thinned. I knew that we were leaving the barrios behind. It was getting dark when the last passenger got off the bus and I was left alone with the driver. I walked to the seat behind him and asked “Where are we?” He shook his head and motioned for me to sit down. “Tranquila, Señora,” he said and continued driving away from the city. My heart thudded.
Eventually, he pulled off the road and into a field. It was now dark except for the light from a small campfire several yards away, and I could see only the shapes of other buses. The driver parked, turned towards me and ordered, “Stay down on the floor,” and then left. After a moment’s deliberation, I did as he said.
Occasionally I raised my head and looked towards the fire where at least a dozen men sat eating and drinking. I wondered if he was telling them about me and if they were planning to kidnap me, or worse. Kidnapping for ransom was common in Colombia in the 70s, and North Americans were sometimes targeted.
I considered the possibility of escape, but it was a remote area and I knew I couldn’t run far. So I stayed and talked to my baby instead. “I’m sorry I got us into this,” I told her, “but I promise, I’ll find a way to get us home. We’ll be fine. I promise.” I said this over and over. I looked out the window and saw men pacing and gesturing towards the bus, but I couldn’t hear their words. My baby had stopped moving.
How much time passed, I had no idea. Finally the driver got back on the bus. Without speaking or even looking in my direction, he backed out of the field and onto the road. I could only manage brief, shallow breaths. I asked where we were going but he shook his head and didn’t answer. I wanted to make some kind of connection, so I asked him his name over the noise of the engine.
When I got no response, I said, loudly, “I am Judith. I’m from California. I love living in Colombia.” Instead of acknowledging my words, he sped up and the bus began to rattle and vibrate. I looked out the window and saw a few small houses beginning to appear but the road was almost empty of other vehicles. My baby stayed completely still; it felt as if we were both holding our breath.
In time, we reached a barrio with paved streets. It was unfamiliar but I was sure we were moving closer to the city. I tried to look for the mountains that ring much of Bogotá but could only see a few shapes and found it difficult to orient myself. I kept sending my baby reassuring thoughts to comfort us both.
Finally the outskirts of El Centro began to appear – neon signs, more traffic, and occasional music coming from stores that were open for the evening. I tempered my exhilaration until, a few miles from where I lived, the driver pulled over, and said simply, “You can leave.” “Your mother would be pleased with you,” I told him as I left the bus. He gunned the engine and drove away.
When I found a cab, its scraped sides and dented doors, I’d never seen a more beautiful sight. And when we stopped in front of my house, I tipped the driver twice the normal fare. He grinned.
I walked in the door to find my entire household in an uproar. “We’re home, and yes, we’re fine,” I said, sinking gratefully into the first chair I reached. Yes! I had never been so grateful to say any word. As if in agreement, my baby began to kick again.
By Judith McCarrick
Judith McCarrick is a former University of California, Santa Cruz administrator who lives in a peaceful forest community in the Sierra Foothills. She is a mother, grandmother, artist, writer, and observer. She has made a pact with herself to spend time each day listening and learning.
Edited by Melinda Gates (www.AwakeningToYes.com)