The International Writers Magazine: Colombia
Exile in Bogota
I find myself this Easter in Bogota, the capital city of Colombia. It is much quieter here than in Mexico, with none of the passion plays of orgiastic violence which Mexicans seem to celebrate.
I saw a few flagellants on the telly but nothing more. If there are festivals happening then they are outside of Bogota.
I have only written intermittently for Hackwriters – I never wrote about being in Peru, seeing Machu Picchu, or travelling to the south of Mexico, visiting the wonderful Oaxaca and Chiapas, then down to Tikal in Guatemala and the gorgeous Caribbean coast of Belize. I never wrote about being in Colonia in Uruguay. Most importantly, I never wrote about why I left Mexico. Rest assured it is a dreadful story involving knives, insanity and deadly diseases. In fact, the antagonist in the story is well and truly brown bread, as seems to happen to all of my enemies in the end. However, I would absolutely
recommend Mexico though to anyone thinking of visiting. It’s a lovely place, especially the states of Jalisco and Chiapas. I was there again last year for the Nease-Saucedo wedding (the wedding of the year, no less). Maybe I will get the opportunity to go there again.
Bogota is close to the equator but is high in the mountains. According to Wikipedia it is 2625 metres above sea level . One can see the whole sprawl of the city (8 million people, many of whom are refugees from other parts of the country) from the church at Monserrate, which is on a mountain that rises to 3152 metres above sea level. The change from Folkestone to high altitudes is always a problem for me. Whilst living in Mexico for seven months I lost two stone of weight. Here I lost a stone in a fortnight, and now I am a stone a half lighter. Admittedly it is weight that I could afford to lose. People would freak out at the beginning because I wasn’t eating, but when you have jetlag, are at
altitude and you have the worst pain in your stomach when you consume food then there is no desire to eat food in the first place! I would have something to eat to get people off my case, but then I realised that it was making them feel better to see me eat and making me feel worse. Thankfully the water here is lovely and soft. If I drank the water in Mexico I might as well be forcing Drano down my intestines.
Another issue is that the food in Bogota a major disappointment. It’s so bland! I walk into a supermarket and have a look around and walk back out again as what is on offer is so unappetising. Colombians prefer tastes that are light. The idea of a strongly flavoured European cheese is something of an anathema here. Meat seems to be sold here to feed a family of ten, which is off-putting for me. Colombians love beans and rice, and so giant bags of rice are sold which people sling over the shoulders and take to the check-out counters. I suppose in that respect Colombia is like China, but with friendlier people.
A popular food here is the ‘arepa’ which is like partially cooked crumpet or breakfast muffin but with less taste than a communion waiver. Most foreigners find them disgusting whereas Colombians eat them religiously. In fact, publically not liking them can cause offence.
To find the really yummy food one has to venture out of the city. I am partial to a blood sausage stuffed with rice called ‘rellena’ The yucca plant I also like a sauce called ‘hogao’
||One can buy giant fruit, which is fun. There are bananas that are the size of old-style telephone receivers (no-one else in the supermarket seems to use them as such apart from me). Exotic tropical fruits which are hard to find at home are commonplace here, such as uchuva or granadilla
Like Chile, Colombia exports its highest quality fruit and the rest is left behind and sold either in supermarkets or on the streets (by young people pushing what look like factory trolleys – I saw a really impressive one laden with the biggest grapes I’ve ever seen).
The fruit is easily the yummiest thing here, after maybe the beans. However, it’s not so easy to buy beans in restaurants as they are considered ‘commonplace’ and ‘unsophisticated’. Colombians like to go to chain restaurants and eat manufactured crepes and waffles. It’s a shame because the family-owned restaurants have much more
interesting and tasty food.
Colombia is also a very large exporter of flowers. They are always in bloom because there no seasons. The run-up to St. Valentine’s Day is very important as flowers are sent to the United States for sale.
Like most of the Spanish speaking world, pork is consumed here far more than it would be at home. This is a legacy of the Spanish Inquisition, where eating pork was shorthand for proving that you weren’t a Jew or a Muslim. Being a vegetarian is very difficult here. I am friends with a vegetarian girl and she seems to find it normal to find meat in her restaurant soup (it’s only for the flavour, she says) or to eat around the meat that has been supplied in her vegetarian dish.
||I have never been in a place before which has one season only: perpetual autumn. Due to its proximity to the Equator Bogota officially has two seasons: wet and dry, though quite when they are no-one seems to sure. They come and go intermittently. Considering its altitude it could be argued that Bogota has four seasons in one day. I have to go out carrying my big coat, cursing as the sun beats down on my face (I wear sun cream as at this height my skin burns easily), only then to be grateful that I bought the heavy thing as the heavens open and hail beats down.
It is nice to see that Bogota has upheld the proud Latin American tradition of building little or no drainage system, so that when the rain comes one has to make sure that one is not drenched by some passing lorry ploughing into a puddle at speed and creating a mini-tsunami over the pavement. The rain from the previous day never gets time to dry and collects as puddles in giant holes in the pavements and roads.
Though I am often warm, Bogotanos complain incessantly about being cold. The night time temperature never seems to go below 12 °C even when it’s raining, yet the population complain and shiver. The daytime temperature can be hot or mild depending on the amount of cloud cover in the sky. There is no-one in England who would find the place cold. It’s only 2625 metres up, so it doesn’t have that awful chill that one gets in the Andes at night in Peru or Bolivia. The altitude takes its toll on me in a different way: I am often tired and perpetually parched, though this can be not so much of an issue as there are lots of stands selling fruit juice. The ladies who sell it squeeze the oranges in front of you before they sell you the juice. As it is Easter it seems that the children of the vendors have taken over the job and do the squeezing and selling during the school holidays (in fact many employers let working mothers take their children into work for a few days during the short school break).
The Spanish here is different, but I expected as much. Spanish sometimes is less of one unified idiom and more of a fraternity of languages. There are different words and pronunciations. Colombians use the polite term usted for practically everything (which has a different declension) but different regions will use vos (which is like the English thee or thou). The region of Boyaca uses a term called su merced (pronounced like ‘su mercay’) which comes from the archaic vuestra merced which means ‘your mercy’: something that you would say to a lord. The people of Boyaca just use it instead of the
The language here can be quite colonial at times: when a security guard opens the door for me or someone sells me a chocolate bar, they say to me ‘a la orden’, meaning essentially ‘to the order’. One can only imagine here that the general population had to speak to their masters in such a way and now it has filtered into the general speech. To me it sounds like how Darth Vader speaks to the Emperor in the dubbed Spanish version of ‘Star Wars’ . I really should have Spanish lessons (I had excellent teachers in Chile but my one in Mexico never used to show up to class) but here I don’t seem to have the time. My Spanish is no way as good as it should be and I’m sure when I speak it is a weird mixture of Chilean, Mexican and now Colombian. I cannot use subjunctives either which are essential to the
language. Here there seems to be different pronunciations of the ‘ll’ sound versus the ‘y’, and the letter ‘s’ is pronounced in a funny way as well by some people. I don’t know if that is a regional difference of someone with not the clearest pronunciation. Colombian Spanish has a reputation for being very clear, and not morphing the vowel sounds into something else (think how in British English the ‘a’ in ‘idea’ becomes like an ‘er’ – so we have ‘idear’. However, outside of the educated Bogotano class it seems that the accent can be quite whiny and change countless times as you move from city to city.
Security here is big business. In fact, I’d go as far to say that Bogota is a ‘security state’. There are police, soldiers, national servicemen seconded to both, private security guards for shops and porters and concierges in residential buildings, all to make sure that the inhabitants of Bogota are not cruelly murdered. Everyday workers go into their companies and have their bags checked as they enter but also as they leave, just in case they might be stealing something. To paraphrase my friend Renato (Cuban born, American raised and who spends most of his Latin American time in Peru), South
Americans feel that if it is not nailed down then someone will steal it. I have yet to be to a Latin country that doesn't have high gates and walls around people's houses.
Thankfully Bogota is very safe, though the legacy of the past is clear to see and the feeling of
insecurity permeates the daily lives of ordinary Bogotanos. It is not such a far walk to the shanty towns (but I’m not stupid enough to go there). The FARC are more or less destroyed (though are still clearly very dangerous) though most Colombians to whom I’ve spoken would be more concerned if they bumped into the right-wing drug-dealing paramilitaries. Thankfully Colombia is a huge country and I am nowhere near these people.
Despite its reputation, Bogota seems to be really rather safe. I've no doubt if went into the squatter encampments on the outskirts of town I'd see a different world, but here I just keep my eye on my belongings to make sure no-one pickpockets me - a bit like being in Mexico City, but a lot calmer. That probably due to the all-pervasive security. I've had my fingerprints scanned to get into a building to teach. I’ve never flown to Israel but sometimes getting into some buildings is like how I imagine flying to Tel Aviv on El Al with all the security checks. Not counting the traffic, which is a nightmare, the city does not feel threatening There are signs sometimes that all is not well, and that when one runs into the homeless. A disturbing sight was under a bridge which I cross everyday for work. It's a decent street with no problems and the bridge is crossing a stream. I noticed some clothes hanging up under the bridge. That means that some homeless person washed his clothes and hung them up to get dry. That also means that he's been homeless long enough to develop a routine where he does these things to survive.
It would be a nice story if the homeless were friendly people who just needed a helping hand. However, they all seem to be mentally ill and smoking something called ‘bazuko’. It’s the stuff that’s so bad that it wouldn’t even be sold as crack at home. Crack maybe whack but obviously Whitney Houston never got her hands on bazuko. The people who smoke it have the most distorted faces and God only knows what their minds are like. I give them a wide berth as much as possible.
The traffic here is awful. It’s the worst I’ve experienced, for various reasons. For a city of eight million people, Bogota has got a serious problem with its infrastructure. Part of the problem is corruption. A recent mayor of Bogota was arrested and removed for corrupt practices, and then was followed by two interim mayors until a new permanent one was found. Therefore a lot of problems that should been sorted out some years ago are only being addressed now.
There are small buses known as micros and colectivos. These names are used all over Latin America, but in each country the meaning changes somewhat. Here it means that they are really small and are driven by angry maniacs. In fact, they are so small they may as well have been designed for Japanese dwarves. I have whacked my head off the ceiling of those things so many times, usually as I’m exiting because I have my eyes on where my feet are going – then BAM – I hit my head. Sometimes it really hurts and I think that I’ve given myself a haemorrhage or something and that I’m going to pass out
in the street.
The drivers hurtle through the city at speed (providing that there is no traffic jam) over badly built roads changing gears without using the clutch and I stagger off the bus like I've been in a tumble dryer, left choking in the black exhaust fumes they churn out. People are sandwiched inside the buses in the morning without room to move and push each other out of the way to get a seat. In the middle of this melee the national anthem is played at six o’clock in the morning (Bogotanos leave to go to work very early because of the traffic). The whole experience is unpleasant.
My worst experience was one morning when I stopped to drink some juice before catching the bus. When I got on it I was very fortunate as a woman near where I was standing got off and I was able to take her seat. However, the bus driver drove like a berserker and I was clinging on for dear life. I was sitting in the front, pushing one hand against the wall and my right hand holding onto the turnstile at the entrance. I realised that I was sweating and I knew that I was going to be sick if the driver carried on pretending his bus was a rollercoaster. Unfortunately he read my mind and the sadistic bastard drove worse. I had to jump off ten blocks before my destination in case I threw up on the bus. I tried to hold it in when I got off, but it started coming up and I vomited lovely orange on a wall as people walked by me to work. Then some homeless woman came and hassled me for change as I was puking. As I finished I realised that my shirt was wet through with sweat – that’s how unpleasant the bus journey was. I should also point out these bus bastard drivers have glass (probably bulletproof) between the passengers and themselves, with just a hole where you put in the fare for the journey.
The drivers then look behind themselves as they drive, counting their money but not looking at the road. Bastards.
||To try and do something about this nightmare Bogota has introduced ‘Transmilenio’, which is essentially a system of lanes cleared for buses which take commuters to different stations as if it were a metro. There are stations which look like German tram stops. The buses are souped-up and drive at speed. There are bits of concrete missing from the bus lane (due to corrupt practises whilst laying the roads) meaning that the thing is an accident waiting to happen.
The system has existed since the year 2000 and is still only being developed. It’s seen as the cheaper option than creating an underground metro system like Santiago de Chile or Mexico City has.
The problems with Transmilenio came to a head with a protest a few weeks ago. Being somewhat out of the loop I didn’t understand what was going on. I just thought that total traffic chaos and taking three hours to get home was normal. A day of protests had been organised, and when I arrived at the nearest station I saw that it had been closed down and there were riot police everywhere. What I couldn’t see at the other side was that windows had all been smashed by protestors. All I could see was that there was a sign saying that it was temporarily closed. I walked down to the next station, down the bus lane which of course had no buses, noticing the gaping holes in the road that were knee-deep. When I came to the next station I saw that there was a big protest, but led by people in their fifties shouting ‘don’t pay’. Behind them were lots of school children joining in the fun. The school children seem to having a lot of fun but the middle-aged protestors were really pissed off. I took out my card to swipe on the turnstile when I was told in no uncertain terms that I should not pay and that jump over the barrier – which I did because it was tiny and designed by small people. At this point the crowd started cheering wildly, mostly amused by my height compared to the barrier, and then started jostling with the
security men. I took this opportunity to make a swift exit, still not understanding that the whole city was in turmoil! Many of the Transmilenio stations were later smashed and some of the buses were set alight.
Transmilenio is truly awful because there are not enough buses for the 8 million people of the city. At peak time there are seven people squeezed in together for every square metre. There is no order, only chaos, and when people have been waiting for half an hour for a bus they become impatient and start pushing. Imagine the rush hour in London or Tokyo but mixed with a sense of anarchy and hopelessness and one can begin to imagine what it is like.
My Chilean friend Eduardo Burmeister had a nightmare when he was living in Vietnam. He dreamt of the mopeds he saw in the streets everywhere, but they were in the red blood cells within his body, going round and round. It was an existential nightmare for him. I often reminded of this travelling around the city.
Rather than fix the problem the mayor just made sure that there were about thirty policemen for every Transmilenio station. Also there were riot police riding pillion trying to intimidate people into not protesting, a bit like Tehran’s basiji. However, the traffic is so bad that a lot of the time it’s just a standstill. One of the more amusing things I saw was a police car in a traffic jam with its sirens blazing but the other cars had nowhere to move. Not to be deterred the policeman lent out of his car and started shouting at them from his loudspeaker! The cars then had to edge slowly out of the way to let the police car pass. If one wants to commit a crime in Bogota it’s best to do it during the rush hour so that the police can’t get to the scene of the crime in time. Conversely if you need an ambulance you’re going to die.
There are so many police here on the streets, most of them are either national service men who are about nineteen or twenty, or they are fat guys who are bursting out of their uniforms. My accommodation is too far away from the places I work, and as a result I seem to spend most of time travelling around the city. I keep my eyes open on the micro and Transmilenio for pickpockets but thankfully I’ve had no problems so far. It can take an hour and 15 minutes to make the journey north 65 city blocks to my class. I realised afterwards that it would take me less time to get the train from Folkestone to London.
Later in the day there are people who come onto the bus to try and sell things (chocolate, crisps, downloaded CDs) or people just come and sing for money. Most of them have no talent but occasionally some are OK. People clap (unlike in Chile where passengers just want them to go away) but most of the singers come at you with a sob story first, like they are singing to raise money for their sick daughter. One such woman did that today, but judging by the looks of her maybe if she had cut back on the food she had been eating and spent it on her 'baby daughter' then the aforementioned sick infant would have been OK. Also I wouldn't have been subjected to the Latin form of 'X-Factor'. As with such reality programmes, it seems that there is currency in having a sob story. At least 'Bus Factor' is kinder because there is no Simon Cowell declaring that they sound tuberculoid and have no hope. If I could play guitar I think I'd go on a bus and say that my darling children were Siamese twins and had Green Monkey Disease and I was raising money for a new lung for them to share. Then I'd sing 'Just
The Two Of Us (We Can Make It If We Try)'. I suppose 'Love Will Tear Us Apart
Again' might be rather amusing (my friend Hugh Macgregor also suggests ‘2 Become 1’
by The Spice Girls, ‘Lean On Me’ by Bill Withers and ‘Let’s Stay Together’ by Al Green) ... one gets no such wit from the would-be chanteurs on the bus. One bozo I saw proceeded to rap. That sucked. Worse still is when people just beg for money
I never saw anyone try to sell things in the metro in Chile but always on buses (before the implementation of Transantiago and the new buses). In the metro in Mexico City there were always such people trying to sell dodgy Cumbia CDs. There is a whole television reality series to be made on the subject. Who knows what is thrown up on buses in Guatemala? Probably the booze drunk last night by the driver, judging by the smell.
With all the negativity I’m relating I should point out that people in Bogota are very happy and friendly. This is unusual as people in capital cities are usually not.
People who sell me food in the street call me ‘neighbour’ and the such. People trust each other in strange circumstances, for example if the bus is too full then passengers will get on at the back and pass the change down the line of passengers who then pay the driver and pass back the change. The money may change hands some fourteen times (I saw this in Chile before they brought in the new buses). People will be hanging on the outside door and someone will make sure that they get their change.
To quote my friend Renato again, he believes that drivers in Lima are excellent because they can react so well to the chaos and not have an accident. I'm not exactly convinced of this but he does have a point. The driving in Lima is quite reactive. Here in Bogota everyone seems to plough on ahead and hang the consequences. Thankfully I haven't seen any accidents, which Renato would no doubt put down to good driving by the Colombians. I suppose if you are used to seeing the world in a less ordered state then you just take it in your stride.
Rather bizarrely in the midst of all of this there are horses and donkeys being used to pull carts. Scrap metal collectors use them, as do rag and bone men. I do feel though that animals in Latin America get a raw deal. This is probably due to the influence of the Spanish who like nothing more than to get drunk on sangria and beat a piglet to death (or stab a bull to death publicly after torturing it for a bit). As a result animals are treated poorly (in Mexico the term 'animal' is considered quite offensive if applied to a human). Last month I walked through a street that was full of pet shops and they all had glass boxes for puppies. It was hot and there was very little ventilation in them. I didn't see anyone rushing to buy the animals so God knows what happens to them when they get too big for the box and are not so 'cute'…
There are many times when I feel culturally disconnected from what is going on here, and not just with the traffic. There is no postal system that I can see. There are no post boxes. There are no telephone boxes in Bogota. 66% of the population don’t have a bank account because they are poor, so therefore people on the street rent their mobile phones for a few minutes so everyone can make a call.
People buy a chocolate bar called ‘Jet’ which has pictures of dinosaurs inside it. There will be a strange riddle, a cross between Nostradamus and a Chinese fortune cookie, from which people will see a ‘prophecy’. However, if the dinosaur is a big and fat the prophecy will say ‘you are big and fat’ … which to me is totally bizarre! It reminds me of a Japanese boy I taught who had Asperger’s Syndrome. He was obsessed with dinosaurs. You could teach him anything as long as it was through the medium of the dinosaur
My biggest moment of cultural dislocation was whilst dancing last week (the nightclub was also full of free fruit, by the way). The place became more and more full, and so it became more difficult to move. I continued my largactyl shuffle and realised that I was moving nowhere. The Latin Americans were resigned to this state and so enjoyed the dancing, whereas I felt shorter of breath and one day closer to death I would have felt better dressed as Baron Samedi as we approached our doom, but the Colombians jumped up and down elatedly
To overcome my feelings of mortality I visited Bogota’s Botero’s Museum. It has many paintings, but most of Colombia’s renowned artist Fernando Botero. He is famous for painting big fat people
(and making big fat sculptures too). I was therefore disappointed that when I went to the toilet - the toilet was very small. I also had my bag checked when I left (as I did when I entered) just in case I had smuggled out a giant fat sculpture. Interestingly, nearly all of the Colombian art on display (with the exception of Botero) was heavily influenced by American or European art. All of the artists whose work I saw lived in Europe. Botero was the only one who seemed to have an individual voice (though he lived in Europe too).
I also visited the Gold Museum here in Bogota. This is a really impressive exhibition of gold artefacts from Colombia’s history before the Spanish Conquest. Again I noticed that the toilets were not in character and were not made of gold, and again I had my bag checked entering and leaving the building. The idea that I would steal the tribal gold though is ridiculous. If I were to wear that sort of thing I’d look like a Mesoamerican pimp! It was just further example of Latin Americans not trusting one another.
I am renting a room from the mother-in-law of my boss. It is small. The flat is small. I knock into things because everything is cramped together. The landlady says that I am too big. I asked her before she moved in whether she had an iron. When I got here I found that she did but didn’t have an ironing board. Instead she used a tiny table, like the sort a samurai would kneel before when he would write a poem before his commits ritual suicide Thankfully she went out and bought an ironing board for me the next day as she saw me kneeling like a medieval Japanese man.
Alas Bogota is expensive. Let me give you an example: when I saw Morrissey live in Santiago it cost me 12,000 Chilean pesos. My rent was 90,000 pesos. He performed here in Bogota on St. Patrick’s Day and it was around 200,000 pesos. My rent here is 450,000 pesos. Shampoo is really expensive because it is imported. In fact, many things are imported from Brazil or Argentina. The supermarkets round up the change if it is under fifty pesos. I don’t know what happens to the rest of the money but it’s not given to me!
I hope that I haven’t said too many things that are bad about Colombia. I can’t say that I am keen about Bogota but the reason I took this job was that my boss promised to rotate me around the different cities in the country. Bogota in itself is something of a concrete swamp. I can’t wait to get out and see what the rest of the country is like. Colombians, like Latin Americans, want people to like their country. My old friend from Chile, Melissa Hooper (from New York State), lived in Japan for a year and said
that Japanese people, a confident nation, were fascinated with travel and would ask you where you had been. Chileans (and Mexicans and Colombians) ask you if you like Chile (or Mexico or Colombia). If you tell them that you love it then they love you. If you don’t like it then you’re expected to lie as not to give offence! The Japanese, Americans, or any of the old European colonial powers don’t really give a damn if someone doesn’t like their country.
On another cheery note, just as lorries have an electronic beeping sound when they reverse in England, here when they reverse the electronic beep plays the lambada! It’s just one of the cheesy things that one finds in Latin America, like the holograms of the Crucifixion that are being sold on the streets at the moment for Easter. I’d take a photo of them, but my camera broke down the moment I arrived here. This for me has been the saddest thing of all. So, as the cloud blow over the mountain tops and street vendors burn incense on the street corners, I wish everyone a happy Easter!
© Dermot Sullivan April 9th 2012
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