Monday, June 8, 2009

First 2 Weeks in Colombia

Colombia is the most-often-misspelled country on Earth (unofficial statistic). From what I can tell, unless you are somehow connected to Latin America through studies, acquaintances, family, or travel, you have an excellent chance of writing Columbia. It strikes me that so few people know how to spell this country’s name, let alone any other facts about it. Yet its reputation worldwide is unequivocally negative, plagued by drugs, cartels, mules, murders, kidnappings, and more drugs. How could virtually everyone recite this laundry list about a country whose name they mistake for a university, an apparel company, or countless cities around the world?

I set out for this unknown (to me) land almost two weeks back, quite unsure of what I would find here, but quite skeptical that it would be all terrible. The Colombians I’ve met in a variety of places during my previous travels have always left me with an overwhelmingly positive impression of their people, and as a result, their country. The Colombians in Colombia have not disappointed either. Thus far, I have felt as much at home as is possible in two weeks. My first impressions of Bogotá are better than even I expected. In case you’re wondering about the weather, I would characterize it as very mild. Average temps are usually in the 50s (10-15° C), and in the afternoon it can get into the 70s (22-25° C) as a high. Also note that we are 2,600 m (7,800 ft) above sea level – or as Colombians say, “2,600 m closer to the stars.” I have to say, living more than a mile high is rough on the old endurance.

My new city has a distinctly Latin American feel to it, enhanced by the extended-size vans (busetas) that line the streets and serve as public transport. In most of them the ceiling is too low for me to stand up straight. ☺ There are vendors on every corner underneath rainbow umbrellas ready to offer you myriad sweet and salty foods, cold drinks, gum, knick-knacks, souvenirs, scarves, mobile phones for rent by the minute, screwdrivers, sunglasses, pirated DVDs, calculators, the list goes on and on. Once I walked by one who was selling English lessons. As I passed I suddenly heard a voice clearly enunciating “Jan-u-a-ry, Feb-ru-a-ry, March, Ap-ril…” Confused as to why someone was listing the months of the year in very clear English in the middle of Bogotá, I looked down and realized a vendor was advertising his wares on a boombox.

My first day here, I noticed right away the characteristic livestock on the city streets alongside all the motorized traffic – a donkey hauling a cart and a llama posing for pictures with astounded tourists. Only 500 pesos to take your memory home with you.

While those are all pretty typical of Latin American cities, Bogotá has surprised me more than once since I arrived. For example, the zona rosa and Parque 93, which are main drags for nightlife here, resemble some very nice cities in their safe, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere with ample, smooth sidewalks and well-kept, modern restaurants and clubs. There are several malls around the city which, from what I can tell, fill up all day long.

Another pleasant surprise is the amount of green spaces they’ve left in the city. We have some very large parks, and near my house it’s common to come across small parks that cover just a block or so as you walk around. The greenery is really a life-saver because the buses do pollute the air a lot on the main roads (we´re not in Switzerland anymore, Toto).

Bogotá takes some tricks from the European playbook, too. It has kilometers and kilometers of ciclovía where bikers enjoy marked paths alongside the sidewalk. My biker friend assured me that you can reach all major points of the city on bike, something which I’ve never seen replicated in any Latin American city (not even Buenos Aires, which is more European than any). I can’t fail to mention the Transmilenio, Bogotá’s exemplary mass transit bus system which looks just like the articulated buses all over Europe and gets people where they need to go with air conditioning. It’s complete with commuter buses that shuttle people from the suburbs to the Transmilenio and back.

I should add a bit about my neighborhood, Chicó, which is in the north of the city. I feel very lucky to live here where things are calm, clean, and peaceful relative to the rest of the city. This is the business sector, so there are lots of office buildings which have security guards on duty 24 hours, which means it’s well-lit and there are people around when I come home at night. My apartment building has doormen who have to let everyone in round the clock, including residents, which is an added security feature. I live next door to the World Trade Center (don’t get too excited – it’s about 100 stories shorter than the Towers were), and my office is across the street so I have no commute.

Overall, Colombia has been a strikingly normal transition for me. Not to worry, though: this gringa* will definitely be keeping her eyes open for all the oh-so-notorious iniquities that are supposed to be happening here. So far, the biggest fault I can find is that Colombia is an orthographic disaster of a country.

*Colombians and other Latin Americans refer to me as gringa, meaning a white foreigner.

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