Goodbye Colombia: a farewell to la tierra querida

“Living in another country is always going to be a good thing.”

It’s a wet, steamy evening in Soho, Hong Kong.  Typhoon Utor is on its way and by 2 am, the city will be on a Typhoon Warning 8.  For the time being, there’s still a birthday dinner and drinks to squeeze out of the evening.

“But up to a point,” continues our friend from the other side of our table at the Peruvian restaurant we had chosen for dinner.  ”At some point, your going to start getting diminishing returns on that risk.”

Suddenly, soaring across Bogota’s sabana two weeks before aboard Avianca 20 seems more than worlds away.  Moving country happened quickly, effortlessly: it was too easy for the size of the task.

There were smiles, clean lines of lipstick and hair pulled tightly into firm buns as we finally made it onto the plane, the modernity of which clearly marked by the fading mood lighting.  Warm glowing orange, and then a cool blue-green as the plane made it into the early stages of its cruise.

It was Colombia on its international, best behaviour.  For some, those first few moments aboard an international Avianca flight might be the first crucial impressions visitors would have of Colombia, or the last contact others would have for extended periods of time.

Interactive entertainment system, fresh hot towels and a late night snack – it was hard to not see this level of service with the same level of appreciation as one might on board some of the more revered international carriers: Emirates, Singapore, Cathay.  It was, beyond doubt, indicative of the comfort and luxury relatively few Colombians will ever know, all the while Colombia’s international conscience echoing Take note: We can do this.  We are here, we will be heard. You will see.

My time in Colombia has been marked by experiences at extremes of a continuum, from those that you would never wish upon another person, to those that both define the potential the country has, and the hope and visions its people have for the not-too-distant future.  It seems only a matter of time before those dreams and visions become ever so subtly more frequent in their reality. But there were also reminders of the other Colombia.  The one that gives “diminishing returns”.

“Can I have my bottle filled up with water? No…no…filled…filled, please…with water?”

“Oh my colleague will come and help in in a second.”

“Can I have my bottle filled with water, please?”

“Yes just give me a second.”

It may seem small, and it was.  A small reminder that my time in Colombia was done.

There are so many things I did not have the opportunity to do and experience, and so many things I wish and hope for Bogota and Colombia, just as 44 million others in the world do too.

As Tom Feiling eloquently puts it, in his attempt to answer how contemporary Colombia has come to this point and this state of affairs, in his book Short Walks from Bogota, “As the most unequal country in the most unequal continent in the world, what is to be expected from a republic were every man calls “master” any individual whiter or better dressed than himself? (p18/26): not much more than a pure, old-fashioned class-based war and a country governed by the elite few of one city, whose generations have created a self fulfilling prophecy of distrust, dysfunction and gross indifference to strangers (p. 23).

I think, on some level, I associate my threshold of diminishing returns with an inability to fully understand and appreciate the struggle that has brought Colombia to where it is today – at least from a street level or day-to-day perspective.  And I by no means wish to imply that I regret being there and meeting the wonderful people that we did.  Colombia is a very interesting place to be right now, and there is no shortage of people who do and enjoy the unpredictability that living long-term in a developing country brings.  I suppose I am just not one of them.

Cementario Central:

 

Cementario Central: To die for your country is to live

Cementario Central: To die for your country is to live

Cartagena:

 

Punta Faro: The OTHER white beach

Punta Faro: The OTHER white beach

Living in Bogota:

Bogota: Dangling the Proverbial Banana

Bogota: Dangling the Proverbial Banana

The Graffiti Tour:

Bogota Graffiti: Urban Art

Bogota Graffiti: Urban Art

Colombian Coffee:

 

Nobody likes a shiny bean

Nobody likes a shiny bean

Rock al Parque:

Rock al Parque, Bogota

Rock al Parque, Bogota

Rock al Parque: Hands in the air

Rock al Parque: Hands in the air

Gay Pride:

Shaking!

Shaking!

Escaping from Bogota:

 

The Lunch Table: The Best Seat in The House

The Lunch Table: The Best Seat in The House

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The Best of Colombian Travel: Top Bogota Experiences part 2

Missed the first half of my favourite Bogota experiences? You can see them here.  

I often imagine that life in Bogota today is nothing like it was 10, even 5 years ago in terms of safety and infrastructure.  That said, a true bogotano experience is about a lot more than ticking the touristic boxes or getting your end in with a Colombian.

I hope that, whether you are already on the ground, or planning a visit, that these suggestions and ideas might help you take in a little more of the city during your stay – not just the sights, but the experience of the city.

So, here we go. My remaining reflections on the Best of Bogota: part 2!

6. Catch a colectivo: experience Working Bogota

IMG_1201Anyone who has caught public transport in Bogota will either a) hate living and working here, or b) have the utmost respect for Colombians who do it everyday, often for more than an hour’s journey to and from work.

The city is connected by private companies that run small buses and vans, called colectivos which stop at any point along the route, but often are so small and so crowded that standing requires adopting some kind of urban karmic pose that entails your ear to touch your biceps while your chin is pushing through your solar plexus as you try to keep a tab on your wallet in your pocket, the 4 foot woman who refuses to move down the aisle of the bus all the while, clinging for dear life to the hand rails as the driver swerves randomly between lanes and will bring the bus to a stop from 60km/h within 10 metres if someone on the footpath waves him down.  If you’re really into cheap thrills in the early hours of the morning, try catching a colectivo at 630am and experience what it’s like to do this on one that is so full you have to stand in the open doorway…on the wrong side of the turnstyle.

Your other option for public transport is the Transmilenio: Bogota’s interpretation of a subway.  On a good day, the transmi is convenient and relatively cheap.  On a bad day (i.e. at rush hour) it’s pretty much every man to himself.  Just because Bogotanos appear to be lacking in stature, they sure know how to hold their place in a queue for a bus…well…they’re not really queues as most people would define them, are they?  And if you feel you’re up for the challenge, I wish you the best of luck.

I, for one, fall into group b: I really don’t understand how people can tolerate such extreme daily commuting conditions and maintain any resemblance of sanity.  My friends tell me that before the days of the transmi, prior to 2000, the transport situation was significantly worse, especially given the absolute filth that colectivos pour into the atmosphere every time the driver hit the pedal.  To me, this mentality is quintessential Colombia: a fervent optimism about this country’s future that translates to an infectiously and invariably irritatingly laid-back attitude.

7. Kick a poo

A visit to Bogota that avoids interaction with, awareness or acknowledgement of the city’s vast economic inequalities is simply naive, and there are still areas, mainly the northern suburbs where doing so may take a little more effort than others. However, if you spend any amount of time in el centro this is an unavoidable reality.

La Candelaria, El Centro,Bogota

La Candelaria, El Centro,Bogota

Put simply: if poo on the sidewalk bothers you, you need a reality check.  You may even consider turning the experience into a fun game that I like to call “human or canine?”.  To give you an sense of what I mean, I once saw a homeless man, who was in a parking lot one afternoon, fervently trying to shake a poo out of the legs of his jeans (just consider the mechanics of that for a second) or what about the admirable effort of the person who managed to shit on a wall opposite the entrance to a friend’s house.

In all seriousness, there is a very high chance people will ask you for money, and while this can be an extremely confronting thing, the reality is most people need the money more than you, so perhaps you ought to consider carrying some loose change in your pocket when you’re out and about?  Do have a quick once over the person’s attire, though, as some opportunistic people (sporting Reebok’s and North Face attire) seem to think that the same business model might work for them, too.

 8. Never take “no” for an answer

If I could give you one piece of advice for getting things done here: never take no for an answer.

This does, of course, take a little practice as  I feel the typical Western response to circular arguments and perceived professional complacency is one of frustration impinging on anger and it is balancing on this threshold that you are most likely to cause offense in Colombia.

When someone says no here it could be for a variety of reasons, but I would always try to ask the same question (possibly in a different way) to more than one person, and give up, as quickly as you can, on every competing with The Logic: it will only end in tears, or a series of distastefully sarcastic blog posts.

9. Take the Graffiti Walking Tour

Bogota Graffiti: It's in your face

Bogota Graffiti: It’s in your face

The urban landscape of Bogota is defined by colourful, often political and typically witty graffiti murals that you might pass anywhere within, from the coloured houses that line the streets of el centro all the way to the farther northern suburbs of Suba and beyond.

The thing I like about the Graffiti Tour is how it changed my perspective of street art and put a slightly a different spin on why graffiti art is a defining feature of Bogota: how many other cities do you know where some of the most prominent street artists also lecture at one of the top universities?

You wouldn’t go to the zoo without looking at the animals, would you? So do yourself a favour and spend a little more time getting to recognise and appreciate the world of colour and the stories the streets and walls of the city tell, once you’re here.

10. Get out: La Calera and Beyond

The view towards Monserrate form Plaza Bolivar

The view towards Monserrate form Plaza Bolivar

Many people fail to realise how close Bogota is to everything.  Perhaps it’s the mountains that tower to the east, or the confusingly chaotic Bogota-ness that drive the population to distraction so easily.

However, one of my biggest regrets from living here is that I don’t feel I had the time to really take advantage of the insane diversity of landscapes and environments that surround Bogota.  For less than $2 and within 30 minutes you can be up and over the other side of La Calera or half way down the slopes of the valley towards La Vega and in an entirely different world completely, with different colours, a different smell and, obviously, a totally different pace of life.

Colombian life continues to be defined by los pueblitos: the small towns and villages speckled across the country, rather than life in the big city (although it is very, very big, Bogota is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to your average Colombian city or town).  And so, it is, I feel, in the surroundings and the ease of access to such diversity that the charm of Bogota really lies.

I have suggested before that for many, the compromise of living in Bogota is the frequency and ease with which you can get your weekend escape.  It is a little more complicated than that, however.  Complicated in the sense that perhaps only 5 or 6 years ago, many of the surrounding areas were occupied by paramilitary and guerrillas, so in reality, getting out of Bogota, even if only for a half day trip, is remains a relatively novel past time, even for Bogotanos, but a past time that will quickly clarify the answer to the question I have been asking myself for the past 18 months: What’s it really like to live in Bogota?

So, what are your top Bogota experiences?

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