I’m sitting in our kitchen, looking out on the Andes, feeling calm—a departure from last week, a whirlwind of energy and emotion. The excitement has been 90 percent good—great, even.
At this hour two weeks ago today, I was touching down at El Dorado airport, lugging 120 pounds of possessions, all the things I thought I would want or need for a year of living someplace new (constrained, of course, by the logistics of travel). I had a hostel reservation for my first three nights, and nothing more. Within a day of arriving I realized I was lost, a few hours later I realized I was ok with that, and then I started, through effort and lots of luck, to get things figured out. I still can’t believe how much has come together in two weeks.
Finding a (great) apartment so quickly was a stroke of ultimate luck. When I look back on whatever successes my time in Colombia produces, I expect I’ll credit this place for many of them. The psychological comfort of having a home is wonderful, and acquiring that four days after arriving let me avoid many of the doubts and fears that can strike quickly after a major life change, like a move. On top of that, I love my new home. Not only is the physical space of the apartment large, comfortable, and pretty (if chilly in the mornings and nights); it’s also inhabited by four other great people.
I’ve already written some about my roommates. In time (and with their consent) I may share more details about them individually, but for now it’s mostly enough to say that I love living with them. They’re different from each other—and from me—in personality, lifestyle, and background, but each is kind, friendly, just a joy to spend time with. This is what I imagine the perfect post-college apartment is like: halfway between living with college friends and with an adult family. Here’s an email exchange from yesterday:
M: Hey guys! I’m going to do a fruit/veggie run on my way home from work, any requests? im gonna pick up onions, garlic, tomatoes, spinach, apples, granadilla, bananas… any thing else? potatoes? red peppers?
me: I got no requests—those sound great. By the way, I’ve got class at 7, so I should leave by 6:15. If you cook tonight after I have to go, could you leave me some food?
M: of course… hey, would you mind putting the beans on to simmer around 5pm? You can put the whole container that they are in on the stove, just make sure there is enough water (about 1/2-1 inch over the beans), on low heat… they need to cook for a while.
me: Sure, though [T] might want to supervise me. I made the worst rice dish ever this morning.
M: Actually, if you will keep the garlic, but rinse the beans before putting them on the stove, add some salt and put fresh water into the pot, and add a tabelspoon of oil? bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low (back right burner) uncovered?
M: incase you want more directions, these help: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Frijoles-Negros-15740
T: Sure ! Pete…help remind me? my mind isn’t all here today, jajaja
me: Yeah, I was going to say the apartment is kind of a shitshow today. [M], we’ll be lucky if we remember anything at all about the beans.
T: HAHA, pete’s right. although i ate the rice dish…and still alive. although after last night, ‘alive’ is debatable.
Thanks to my roommates, I’ve had a warm and happy home to spend time in—and a lot to do outside of the apartment. T works in events and entertainment, so she’s always got things to go to, she always wants to bring people along, and she can often bring friends to events for free.
On Thursday night a band that she works with had a launch event for a new single. The show was at a club in one of the swankier northern neighborhoods of the city. T brought along three of us from the apartment, and a dozen other of her friends showed up. I met friends of hers, friends of M’s, and friends of friends of friends of friends. As I have almost every day here, I met Colombians and I met foreigners. I spoke Spanish and I spoke English. I hung out, and I danced. As did we all. My first night out in Bogotá was amazing—a little drunk, much more happy and excited from the socializing and the dancing and the music.
Bogotanos can party.
Friday night the roommates and I stayed in to cook dinner and watch a movie. On Saturday I accepted an invitation to a friend of a friend’s apartment, for drinks and appetizers. I hadn’t met her before, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know how old she was, how formal or fancy the event would be, or anything else. After getting lost in a cab and showing up more than fashionably late, I entered the apartment to a room of people ready to welcome a newcomer, put up with my limited Spanish, feed me delicious food, offer me job leads, and, when the music came on a couple hours later, teach me some dance moves.
In the week that ended Saturday, I worked a few hours, spent a few more hours looking for work, socialized a lot, and explored Bogotá some each day. Repeatedly, I found myself talking to foreigners like me: young people who have moved here for several months or several years. (Now that I’m out of a hostel, I’ve met fewer backpackers and many more expats, a change I’m very happy about.) The conversations became repetitive, and more and more surreal. Each time, each of us marveled at our situations: the fact that we’re here, and that we love this city and this country already. We swam in our shared happiness and excitement that Bogotá is what we had hoped, before we got here, it would be be—and more. One American girl I met, a year older than me and, like me, now a Bogotá resident of two or three weeks, described her reason for moving here over any other country: “As soon as I realized Colombia was an option, it became the only option.” I had felt exactly the same thing the night I decided to move here. (My friend David will remember the Gchat conversation I started with him at that moment, when I told him I thought I had decided on my new home, because I had just read the Wikipedia page about Bogotá.) And I suspect that many of the other foreigners I’ve met share the feeling. Now here, we’re all just trying to internalize the reality that our impulsive decision seems to have been as smart as it seemed at the time.
But Bogotá is not perfect. It’s very much not perfect for many Colombians. It’s a city, like most cities worldwide, of tremendous poverty, and it shares dozens of flaws and shortcomings with other booming cities in developing countries. When I describe how exciting Bogotá is to live in, I don’t mean to suggest it’s the Emerald City (though Colombia is the country of esmeraldas).
There are problems that everyone experiences. The traffic and driving are often scary, as is the amount of exhaust the cars put out. The sun sets at 6 sharp every day of the year, and by 8 or 9 the streets in many neighborhoods are near empty; you don’t want to be walking around when few others are out. As much as Colombia and Bogotá have become safer in the last decade or two, this is still a city of high crime, high poverty, high pollution, and high congestion of cars and people. I may attract more attention than the average, more-Latino-looking person on the street, but I can also avoid many of the city’s dangers and inconveniences by living in a fine neighborhood, having money for cabs when I need to take them, and knowing that a single phone call can get the human and financial resources of my family and friends in the U.S. to help me if I ever need help. I don’t, and likely won’t ever, know the Bogotá that a couple million bogotanos know.
So part of my pleasure at being here feels somewhat twisted. Some of the undeniably fun and exciting parts of life here are the result of inequality, discrimination, and insecurity. It’s more exciting to walk the streets of Bogotá at night than it is to walk in New York. I try not to do it without company, and I would never head out for a leisurely stroll after dark, but the small sense of relief when I close my front door behind me is a result of adrenaline that was never released by the simple act of living my life in the U.S. And the warmth and hospitality I receive from Colombians is surely in part a result of a culture of such kindness and gregariousness, but it’s also in part a result of my light skin, my native language, my American background and connections—the fact that I am a privileged other. When I speak to other foreigners about how much we love life here, we speak honestly, but we also let some realities go unsaid. We can never live the lives of Colombians.
I went to sleep Saturday night still enjoying the week-long high that had arisen from so many factors: my social life makes me as happy as it ever has, even the small amount of money I’m earning is more than I’ve earned before, I have a new home that I love, the good parts of life here are exciting to me as a newcomer and a foreigner, and many of the bad parts of life here are exciting too. What could be better?
Then on Sunday a miscommunication led to a missed appointment with someone I was hoping to meet. I wasn’t stood up, but I was let down. So instead I shot off a message to a guy I had found on CouchSurfing, a 23-year-old Texan who seemed to be exactly me, plus a year: he had moved down here a year ago to do journalism, and has been teaching English for his visa and to earn money. He wrote back right away and invited me to meet up with him later that day. What I thought would be a half-hour- or hour-long conversation over coffee turned into a whole afternoon. We sat, then walked, and talked for nearly four hours, until it was past dark and we had returned to the neighborhood we both live in. We shared our respective stories and filled a couple more hours with question and answer, as I asked questions about life and work here, about how he had and I could make money, get a work visa, stay safe, have fun.
The hours we spent together were incredibly helpful. I learned so many things—the things you can only learn from someone who has been in shoes that look (or, in the case of my climbing boots, smell) similar to yours. Yet when I got home I was anxious, enough so that I felt tightness in my chest. Over the afternoon, I had basically heard conflict story after conflict story: about trying and nearly failing to earn a living here, about dealing with immigration offices, about dealing with school administrators, about muggings and attempted muggings, and more. As I said, all of this was so helpful to hear. But it wasn’t fun. And as we talked, we were repeatedly approached by beggars and called out on the street for being gringos. Neither of those had happened to me before in Bogotá. I chalk the new, stressful experiences up to the fact that my companion was 6-foot-6 with a shaved head, while I pass for Colombian much more plausibly.
(In fact, while I look very different from most Colombians, I don’t look so different that I’m obviously a foreigner. The country has a large white population, and most of the mestizo population has very light skin too. My hair color makes me stand out much more than my skin color does. And, depending on what I wear, I think I look more like a foreigner or a local. When I’m in a button-down shirt and nice pants riding the TransMilenio to teach a class, I don’t look very different from most of the other people around me. At least, I don’t think I do, because I don’t get too many people looking my way. This degree of passing was impossible anywhere I went in Peru. The same was obviously true when I traveled in India and Tanzania.)
So I headed home feeling anxious and, frankly, scared. For the first time since arriving I had seriously confronted that I would likely have problems here. The chances of me having legal issues with staying as long as I want, of dealing with employers trying to rip me off, or of being hassled, robbed, or assaulted are all much greater than I’d like them to be, and of course greater than they would be if I had remained in the U.S. For the first time since arriving I doubted whether I had made an entirely smart decision by coming here, whether life in Bogotá was as wonderful as I had spent the last week thinking it was. Though I was hungry, I decided not to get food outside, choosing the risk that the apartment would be empty of food over the risk that I might have an unpleasant experience while I ate or walked around outside. I headed home as quickly as I could.
And when I got home, there was M, making dinner, food almost ready. “I hope you’re hungry,” she said to me. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling, and quickly unloading what I was feeling then. We sat down to dinner and enjoyed a calm hour of eating, talking, sharing. Life here, we agreed, isn’t as easy as it is elsewhere. But it is, and will be, as long as we stay, wonderful in so many ways. At the least, it’s exciting. The adrenaline released just by walking the streets is something I already suspect I’m going to miss when I leave.
My post of a few days ago was both lighthearted and serious. I have met a lot of people here whose faces I recognize, even though of course I’m meeting them for the first time. I have repeatedly felt, “This is weird—I feel like I know these people”—only they’re also more outgoing, and much better dancers, than the people they remind me of. So I say both with some silliness and with honesty that I keep feeling I’m going to wake up and find that this isn’t real. I hope that doesn’t happen. I want to stay a while longer.