I’d forgotten that a Barnes and Noble bookstore had opened in the old department store building. As I walked back to my car in the Baltimore suburb of Towson, I remembered what I’d seen in the other bookstore closer to home, so I changed my path a little, pushed open the heavy door, and headed for the international travel section.

An entire wall of alphabetized guidebooks rose above me. In the Latin American section, I found Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba. Thirty million people, beaches, mountains, wild orchids, rain forests, a lively and varied musical tradition —it wasn’t there. I started over and searched again, more slowly this time. They had Antigua, Argentina, Belize, Ecuador—the book covers always mention the Galapagos, to pull in the tourist with a scientific bent—Jamaica, Venezuela. One book, entitled “Latin American Beaches,” had a brief chapter on Cartagena. Beyond that, nothing.

If I told my friends I was going to France, Spain, Italy, or even India, they would smile; they would understand; they wouldn’t ask why. When I returned, they would want to hear about my escapades and see the pictures. We would swap stories about that quaint, inexpensive little place in the fifth Arrondissement, the new exhibition at the Reina Sofia museum, or the food on British Airways. I would have a reputation as a charming, sophisticated man of the world. Instead, they think I’m nuts.

I’ve learned not to tell them I’m going to Colombia. They react as if I had said, “I’ll be spending my vacation at the city dump.” They struggle to smile, but they can’t think of anything polite to say. The more honest among them blurt out, “Why?”

I’ve sulked and thought of the wicked fun I could have if I asked my friends pointed questions about their prejudice against short, dark people. They’re a rather politically correct crowd, and I’m sure they’d squirm. Instead, I’ve tried to defend my choice. I start with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian from the Atlantic Coast, then I trot out the touristy list. I tell them that, in the Street of the Esmeralderos, men in suits stand on the sidewalk and show you loose emeralds wrapped up in waxed paper, their bodyguards’ eyes glued to your hands and the gleaming chips of green. Outside Bogota, you can walk a quarter-mile into the side of a mountain; the ceiling opens above you, and you’re among the statues and candles of the Catedral de Sal, an immense church carved out of an abandoned salt mine. Worried about what you’ll eat? In Colombia, the stores and restaurants are filled with wonderful fruits you’ve never heard of, bananas that taste the way they’re supposed to taste, and a brand of fruit juices that are to the boring stuff back home as a beautiful, affectionate Latina is to a tough American female lawyer. This isn’t a place for a tourist?

My friends don’t think so. In the United States, condescension slides south so easily. The few who know a little about Colombia ask that question that’s so difficult to answer: “Isn’t it dangerous?” I dread that one because it is, and Colombia doesn’t let you forget it. Private security guards stand with rifles in front of stores, and boys of 18 and 19, drafted into the army, patrol the city streets carrying automatic weapons and eyeing you suspiciously. If you want a cab, your hotel will suggest you let them call the company. On the phone, they’ll establish a code with the dispatcher, and the cabbie won’t want to take you anywhere until you give it to him. Last year, in a wealthy suburb of the big city of Cali, a group from one of the guerrilla movements (yes, there’s more than one) swept into a church one Sunday and kidnapped the entire congregation. The current administration ceded the guerrillas a huge tract of land —inevitably termed “the size of Switzerland” —in vain hope of making progress toward peace. The enormous flow of drug money incapacitates the government, because a bureaucrat willing to look the other way for the drug lords can become rich; if he’s unwilling, he’s likely to become dead.

When people travel to a foreign land, the beauty, intelligence, sadness, and humor of human life seem so penetratingly clear that they return to their normal lives more alive. I could get that renewal in Italy or France, but Colombia does much more: She whispers secrets in my ear that apply to more than just her lovely, unhappy self. The homeless children beg in the airport; kidnapping has become almost commonplace; the economy has declined while much of the world has enjoyed a boom: Still, normality struggles to assert itself amidst the chaos and evil. People worry about their children, make plans for their vacation, and try to get tickets to that concert next Saturday. In the midst of a multilateral civil war, they hold elections, and journalists demand that both the paramilitary bands and the guerrillas respect the rule of law. The journalists may disappear or turn up dead, but others take their places.

When an American in Bogota asked a woman he trusted where he could exchange his dollars for pesos, she directed him to the office next to hers in an elegant building. He blithely entered a tiny room with a partition, where three tense looking young men quickly gave him pesos and a small printout from a calculator, saying nothing during the transaction. Only later did it occur to the American that maybe all of this wasn’t, well, quite legal. He asked his friend—a respectable, conscientious woman—if she thought those quiet, young men were narcotraficantes. Probably so, she said; certainly, it was a money-laundering operation. She spoke calmly, as if such a thing next door to her office were quite unremarkable.

In Colombia, enlightenment could descend on the battered old car in the middle of Call where I talked to two women, both schoolteachers, as we drove through a rich neighborhood. One of them gestured at the houses around us: This was where the mafiosos lived. She was referring to the clan that once, according to the U.S. government, controlled 85 percent of the world’s cocaine trade. I sputtered and asked the other woman if my leg were being pulled. “Oh no,” she said calmly. “Everybody knows that.”

For a moment, my sense of being in an alien land was so overwhelming that it simply burned out. I realized that there were neighborhoods in New York, Washington, or Los Angeles where I could have the same exchange with a native. My city also has drug lords who live in ostentatious wealth and murder anyone who gets in their way. In my prosperous neighborhood, teenage boys stand on the curbs late at night, looking expectantly at passing cars, hoping to make another sale of heroin or cocaine. In my country, the government pays unmarried teenage girls to have babies, our children murder each other in their classrooms, and little learning takes place even in the more peaceful schools. Our politicians spend their time posing and trying to score points off each other, and last year, three of the four men with any chance of becoming president were the sons of senators or presidents. In the midst of our own drug war, violence, and corruption, we think our lives quite normal, ignore the terror, and go on as if it all were happening far away, and to some other people.

Why would anyone visit America? Isn’t it dangerous?