Each time we talk on Skype, my dad asks to hear about the “sights, sounds, and smells” of Bogotá. I tell him I can’t describe those, so he has to ask me real questions. I can’t describe those parts of the city, either on the phone or in writing, in such broad terms, going on sensory perception alone. But I’ve had a few observations that are along the lines of what my dad wants to hear about, and which I can put into words. Here they are:
The mountains. Bogotá sits in a high plateau, the Savannah of Bogotá. The plateau extends westward from the city, which has expanded in that direction as it has grown. It can’t expand eastward, since it’s tucked in at the base of a grand mountain range, the Cerros Orientales, whose peaks tower above the city’s eastern skyline along its entire north-south stretch. What this means for regular bogotanos (like me, now) is that a quick scan of the skies will provide immediate and perfect orientation. Where you see mountains, that’s east. And it’s impossible not to see mountains, since they’re much higher than everything else. They’re also gorgeous.
The weather. We’re in the rainy season now. I’ve lived through rainy falls and rainier springs, but I’ve never before lived through a rainy season. Last week it poured for five or six days straight. Since I arrived here six weeks ago, there have only been two or three purely sunny, cloud-free, rain-free days. I don’t hate this weather (I’ll explain more in a moment), but the rain this week became absurd. Each day it rained longer and harder than it had the previous day, so I almost became afraid to wake up. Though we’ve been spared torrential rains in the last few days, bright skies haven’t meant dry skies: some rain has come down even in each of the last few, sunny days. My description of the rain here led Raf to bring this great piece to my attention again. That’s a fair description of how the beginning of this week went.
And mountain weather can frustrate the hell out of you, even when it isn’t raining. Icy gusts in the morning make you bundle up if you head outside early, but by midday (at least on the days the sun chooses to appear) even a casual walk can make you break a sweat—and then you find yourself carrying all the layers you needed in the morning. That said, I’ve been very happy with the (even dismal September and October) weather here so far. Where I grew up, the refreshing nip of fall is too quickly replaced by the sting of winter—and even winter’s threat removes much of the pleasure from the months that precede it. Without much temperature fluctuation up here in the mountains, I can enjoy the brisk air these weeks, knowing the weather will only get warmer (in December and January, just in time for me to go home to freezing New York for a few weeks). Call me crazy if you want, but a six-month fall, when followed by spring, is the kind of seasonless existence I can really enjoy.
Traveling the city. I have a few observations here. First, commuting in Bogotá is hell. I’ve finally learned (or admitted to myself) that I need to assume that traveling 20 blocks during rush hour will take half an hour, whether by bus or taxi. Traffic moves more quickly in the middle of the day, and at night you can fly through the city. But during the hora pico, driving really isn’t much faster than walking. It’s a pretty miserable experience.
But that misery is far outweighed by taking the TransMi at rush hour. The TransMilenio, which is blessed with exclusive, car-free lanes, sometimes punishes you for taking advantage of its speed by reminding you of the way you least enjoy other humans: squeezed up against them in small, contained spaces. I grew up squeezed in between New Yorkers on the 6 train at rush hour, but that’s nothing compared to the physical pressures of the TransMi. Let me walk you through a worst-case rush hour TransMi ride:
You arrive at the station and wait behind dozens of people making their way through the three turnstiles (always three at each entrance), slowly filing in. Inside, you squeeze between the people crowded on one side to go uptown and the people crowded on the other to go downtown. You find the part of the station where your bus will arrive, and you get as close to the doors as possible, but you’re standing at the back of a dozens-strong crowd. A bus pulls up, and it’s not yours, nor is it the right bus for half of the crowd. (Multiple buses arrive at each set of doors; an average station may be a stop for a fifteen different buses in each direction, so at each of the half-dozen or so sets of doors, two or three differently numbered buses will arrive.) The pushing begins. People push to get off the bus. People push to get on the bus. No one who doesn’t have to board or deboard moves. So three forces interact: the outward press, the inward press, and the inertia of those remaining on the bus or on the platform. Somehow, everyone who needs to get off the bus manages to, and the people who need to get on do the same. A minute later, your bus pulls up. Now you have to get on. There are still a dozen people in front of you, only half of whom are taking the same bus. Do you know what the other half does? That’s right: they stand there. So you push. You feel like a total asshole, but you’ve already learned that permiso and perdón fall on deaf (or uninterested) ears. You mumble permiso to make yourself feel like less of a shit while you push past old men and women holding babies—who, despite their precious cargo, do nothing to avoid your shoves. Then you’re on the bus. It’s still very much rush hour. So now you don’t have to push past anyone else (at least until you arrive at your destination), but you’re now squeezed in with too many people in too small a space, pressed against strangers more tightly than you’d want to be pressed against your significant other. And at each stop some of them have to get off. So the pushing creates breaks from the painful squeeze—or the other way around. Either way, it’s not fun.
All that said, I really enjoy taking the TransMi outside of rush hour. When you don’t have to squeeze, it’s a delightfully efficient and unstressful public transportation system. That’s why I can’t wait until I can afford to cancel my evening class and only commute in the afternoon. (The painful experience of rush hour commuting in Bogotá has led to twisted preferences: I’m glad that next week I’ll be starting class every day at 7 am, rather than an hour or two later, because waking up at 5:30 and getting on the TransMi by 6 is less painful than waking up at 7 or 8 and having to deal with hundreds more people in the stations and on the buses during the full-on rush hour.)
And it’s hard to accurately describe how, when, and why cars and motorcycles move here. It’s fair to say that the nature of traffic here is nothing like that of traffic in the United States or Europe. Luckily it’s also not like traffic in Delhi, the one truly insane city I’ve been to. But in that wide in-between is space for a culture of first-to-move-gets-right-of-way. In my first week here, I thought that right of way was determined by size, or momentum. Then I took a bike tour through the city, led by a bogotano. Juan led the tour’s six gringos through and around traffic and, remarkably, cars didn’t run us over. If we got in front of them (with enough time for them to hit the breaks), they let us be. That was kind of cool. But that same logic means that crosswalks (or where crosswalks would be in an American city) don’t actually provide right-of-way for pedestrians, since a car that can beat you through the space will go for it. And you better back off. The really cool thing, at least for a young and cocky city kid like me, is that everyone here not only jay-walks; they jay-run. You have to. To cross multi-lane streets that aren’t the big avenues, you basically have to wait for a small break in the traffic, and then dash. Not a super safe way to live, but not a boring one either.
The streets. The streets are arranged quite conveniently. The best part of navigating Bogotá (and the other major Colombian cities, I believe) is that the building numbering is perfectly simple: the address “Calle 14 #10-24” is on calle 14, west of carrera 10 (in between the buildings numbered #10-22 and #10-26). The address “Carrera 7 #85-60” is on carrera 7, north of calle 85. Such a numbering system makes finding your way around the city, or giving directions to cab drivers, incredibly easy. Unfortunately, complicating the effort to navigate the city is that many of the calles, which supposedly run east-west, and many of the carreras, which supposedly run north-south, actually curve or run on angles or stop abruptly. While much of the city is on a basic grid, there are countless (major) breaks from that pattern. So it isn’t necessarily true that carrera 60 is west of carrera 45, not if one of them actually runs on a diagonal. Figuring out which major calles and carreras don’t actually run along their supposed direction has helped me get around the city. But I have a lot more to learn. And I wish Bogotá cab drivers had to pass a test like London’s The Knowledge.
Pollution. Bogotá doesn’t look excessively dirty when you walk around. The buildings look they haven’t been washed in a while, but I’m sure they haven’t been. And only after walking for a while along a major avenue do you feel the exhaust in your chest. But there are worse signs of the city’s pollution. My least favorite is the one I see most often: Our beautiful and huge terrace and its chairs are visibly dirty each time I go to sit out there. So I wipe the chairs down and can use the deck, but I can’t stop thinking about what I’m breathing in. And my old Adidas sneakers that I brought as my only pair of non-formal, non-running shoes, already faded and grayish before I arrived, are distinctly darker by now. The formerly white and green parts are barely distinguishable now. And apparently Colombians really care about shoes, so who knows what social damage I’m doing to myself by walking around in these?
Paseo milionario. Maybe all the above has sounded terrible. But it’s not terrible for me. I really enjoy this city, including—at least so far—many of its foibles or problems, like that I might be hit by a car, that I make intimate acquaintances while commuting, and that I didn’t see the sun for a week. The one thing I have not and will not be able to get over is the one thing about Bogotá that terrifies me. The paseo milionario—”millionaire’s ride”—is a not uncommon occurrence whereby a taxi driver drugs his rider by throwing an inhalable drug at the back seat. The rider is then effectively roofied—only he isn’t made unconscious. Rather, he’s rendered completely docile and very much ambulatory, perfect for being driven to an ATM and withdrawing all his money. Yes, unfortunately this happens, not frequently, but frequently enough to make it something to take very seriously. It can be avoided by calling cabs: the cabs that work for established companies are guaranteed to be safe. And, I’ve learned, even if it doesn’t minimize the risk of being targeted when I have to hail a cab on the street (which I have learned to never, ever do at night), there’s no reason to carry my ATM card around. Should the paseo milionario happen to me, I’ll be seriously fucked health-wise (a hospital stay of a day or two is sometimes necessary, as an IV is the best way to fix the body’s systems), but at least the driver won’t get more than a few dollars out of it. Is that an absurd way to think? (Seriously, though, I’m taking precautions to protect not just my money, but also myself.)
JB. Somehow I haven’t met anyone here yet who has recognized Justin Bieber for the genius that he is.
I hope all of this doesn’t sound stressful, sad, and terrifying. If life here is those things, I don’t know it. I’m still loving it all, including the details of both the world around me and of my personal existence. Want reassurance that I’ll be ok and that I have legitimate reasons to be so happy here? More to come soon.