Colombia is passion

After she spends a couple weeks in New York with me, Isabel will return to Bogotá for a few days. Then she’ll fly to Europe, where she’ll be through the end of January. She’s going to environmental fairs in France and Spain with her employer, Fundación Malpelo (whose crappy old website will be replaced any day now has been replaced by the beautiful new one Isa designed, though it’s still in beta).

Last week she showed me a music video on YouTube, which I’ve embedded below. It’s a PR video promoting Colombia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it includes a Shakira lookalike:

As you can see, the video is lighthearted and fantastical. But apparently it’s got a serious element too. “If I’m going to fairs in Europe, it’s because of ‘Colombia is Passion,’ ” Isa said after we watched it. “Colombia is Passion” is the country’s five-year-old PR campaign to attract foreign visitors and investment, and to re-brand Colombia internationally as an exciting and fun, rather than dangerous and backward, place to visit or move to. In a few more words, it is:

a competitiveness strategy that strives to strengthen the image of our country abroad by generating trust among foreign investors and audiences with the aim of obtaining more and better opportunities in the fields of trade culture, investment, and tourism.

Since 2005, Colombia is Passion has been working to show our reality to the world, extolling everything that makes us a privileged nation:

  • We are one of the most solid and stable democracies in the region.
  • Our economy registers growth rates above the regional average.
  • An advantageous geographical location makes us an important tourist destination increasingly recognized by cultural wealth and identity.

For the full pitch, click the link. It’s pretty impressive in its bluntness: “We Colombians should feel proud of having been born in this country and should show our passion for it by talking positively about the land and its people and by becoming the best possible hosts for our visitors.”

When she said Malpelo and she were going to international fairs because of “Colombia is Passion,” I thought Isa meant that the campaign has raised Colombia’s international profile so much that her organization is now invited to travel overseas to promote itself. But she corrected me yesterday: Proexport, an organization that promotes investment and tourism in Colombia, as part of “Colombia is Passion,” is actually paying for Malpelo to go. So the “Colombia is Passion” campaign is the direct reason she gets to go back to Europe next month.

I wrote most of this post up yesterday. Because I wanted her to verify some facts, I asked Isa to read it over before I put it up. In my first draft, I wrote that I didn’t know whether “Colombia is Passion” has had any demonstrable effect on tourism or investment in the country. The anecdotal report I’ve heard from Colombians is that there are now many more extranjeros in Bogotá than there were a few years ago (when there were close to none) and that the national economy is also better than it was five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago. But I haven’t looked up numbers. And I mused that even if, as I imagine they do, the numbers show more tourism and investment in Colombia now, they’re likely more a result of the reality of life in Colombia than of a PR campaign. Colombia’s distinct progress in the last decade or two away from its history of drug-money-(and anti-drug-money-)fueled violence has been followed, slowly, by a similar movement in its international image. I’m sure, I wrote, that has been helped by “Colombia is Passion.” But the campaign wouldn’t be able to do anything if the facts–that Colombia is a pretty good place to visit or invest in right now, at least depending on where you go and what you do–weren’t true.

Isabel corrected me. From her perspective, “Colombia is Passion” has had a huge effect on the national image, both internationally and among Colombians. She grew up here in Bogotá and left the country in 2003, moving to France to study. She stayed in France for six years, studying (she got her master’s degree there) and working. In 2009 she moved to London, where she lived for ten months before moving back to Bogotá in July. Back here to live for the first time in seven years, Isa regularly comments on how different Bogotá and Colombia are now from how they were when she left in 2003. The differences are, she claims, in no small part a result of a new national feeling, significantly cultivated by a national effort to make the country better–and to both be proud and show pride in Colombia. “Colombia is Passion” isn’t just something Colombians see on billboards; its something a significant number of them believe and help promote. It has made a noticeable difference, she says.

But, as much as the country has become safer (especially in its major cities), and as much as the Colombian government and people have advertised the good sides of the country’s passion, “Colombia is Passion” is still true in ways the country wishes it weren’t.

Last Friday, Isabel and I came home from a friend’s party at around 2. We went to sleep half an hour or an hour later. At 6, we were woken up by one of my roommates, A, and his friends hanging out and talking loudly right outside our door. I got up to ask then to move, at least to hang out somewhere a little farther from us. As soon as A saw me emerge from the room, he was apologetic. I asked him in Spanish (he’s Colombian) just to move to the living room, and he said they would, sure, right away. But then they kept talking right there for ten or fifteen minutes. Ugh. Before Isa and I felt forced to go out again and ask them a second time to move or stop talking, it sounded like they began to get up to leave. And then they did, and it was quiet, finally.

Half an hour later, our bedroom door opened. Each of us woke up. A man stood there for a few seconds, silhouetted by the light behind him. Then he closed the door. And then we heard the apartment door open and close.

I hoped and convinced myself that the guy at the door had an innocuous explanation: When the rest of A’s friends had left, one or more had stayed behind, and one, looking for his friend’s room, had accidentally opened our door instead. When he saw us and realized he had made a mistake, he closed it.

We went back to sleep.

Half an hour or an hour later someone pounded on the apartment’s front door, loudly and quickly. Then again. Pissed that I had to do this, and do it only about five hours after I fell asleep for the first time and an hour since I fell asleep the last time, I got up to answer the door before the knock could come a third time.

In my boxers I greeted two of our downstairs neighbors. They immediately began speaking quickly in Spanish. At 8 in the morning, still a little asleep, I definitely can’t understand Spanish. I heard rompió, the past tense of romper, “to break,” and I saw one of them make what looked to me like a stabbing motion. When they said “T,” the name of my roommate who pays for the whole apartment and rents the rooms out (and is therefore in charge as far as the building is concerned), I thought, “Good. I can get T, who will understand this and hopefully have some idea what to do. And I can go back to sleep.” I knocked on her door until I got a response from her, then went back into my room to try to fall back asleep. I wasn’t going to succeed.

T eventually emerged and began talking to the neighbors. Their volume and intensity rose quickly. Then they stopped talking. I guessed they went downstairs. I realized I was right when T came back and quickly started yelling again.

First she yelled in English: “Get up! Get your ass off the floor! Get up!” And more. A (our Colombian roommate who had had friends over a couple hours earlier) speaks some English, but not very well, so I figured she wasn’t talking to him, and I didn’t know whom she could be talking to. Then she switched into Spanish, first for more of the same–“Ven aquí! Levántate!“–and then for something a lot heavier: “Estás sagrando en el piso!“–“You’re bleeding on the floor!”

That’s when Isa and I realized (since we were both awake, of course, what with the yelling and door pounding right outside our room) that something serious had happened. I don’t remember all the specifics of what we heard next, or how long the yelling continued. Among the things we heard (in Spanish, so I’ll translate into English) were: “This is a disrespect!” … “I love you, but you can’t do this!” … “I’m responsible for this place, so when you do this, you hurt me!” And so on. T was clearly crying as she was yelling. Whoever she was yelling at was presumably still on the floor, still bleeding, until the yelling and crying stopped a few minutes later. I never found out exactly what was happening then, so I’ll just finish the story with what we later heard had happened that morning:

A had gotten very drunk with his friends. For some reason, he went downstairs and got into a fight. Or he got into a fight and went downstairs (though we didn’t hear anything like that in the apartment). While downstairs, he punched through the glass in the building’s front door (the “rompió” the neighbors had mentioned), rendering the front door effectively useless, since anyone could reach around to the lock and open it up. He also, from the glass, started bleeding, and presumably passed out or decided to collapse in the entryway. When he had rushed downstairs, he had left the apartment door open. Someone–someone who lives or was at the time in the building, it seems–had come into the apartment. This must have been the man who opened our door an hour or two earlier. Before leaving the apartment, he stole T’s computer.

Of course, by the time we found all this out, the event was long over. But the coda to the story is that by 3 pm that afternoon (only a few hours after all this happened), A and T and a friend of theirs were drinking and singing and shouting (happily) once more in T’s room, apparently having made up and decided that what had happened the night before didn’t warrant more than several hours of chill-out down time without alcohol.

I’m looking to move when I come back in January. One of my other American roommates, M, moved out this week.

The next night, less than 24 hours after all the above went down in our apartment, the friend who spent the afternoon drinking and hanging out with A and T stayed out late (I don’t know what neighborhood he was in) and was attacked, stabbed several times outside a bar.

And the week before, I received the following email from a guy I work for. The subject was “fucked up day.” The entire text of the email read:

okay if you cant get a hold of me i don’t have a cell phone call me at ###-####
can peter or [X] cover my classes at studio com? i have them at 5-7 t,w,t this week
I was stabbed today and i have to stay in bed fort a few days.

please send me your numbers
Thank you
[XYZ]

I don’t really have a good way to end this post. A bunch of people around me have been victims of pretty serious crimes recently. All are ok, very thankfully, though they still bear the physical wounds and one lacks a computer. I almost do too (another one, or who knows what else would have been stolen), in case that wasn’t clear from the story about the intruder.

I’m still very happy to be in Bogotá. I’m taking care of myself as much as I can, and I don’t usually feel at risk. But bad shit happens. Maybe (probably?) more here than in the other places I could be right now.

So is Colombia passion? I’m excited to be here. But as Isa points out whenever I say that, I can leave whenever I want. The “excitement” of the country isn’t the same for its citizens. As I wrote in one of my first posts from Colombia, whatever “passion” I feel, or other foreigners feel while they’re here, surely dosn’t make for the same experience that Colombians have while living in their country.

And on what will hopefully be a comforting note for the people who love me, even I recognize, especially when people break into my apartment, that some excitement is the kind that makes for exciting stories (and is, honestly, exciting to live through if nothing truly bad happens to you), but really isn’t the kind of experience to seek, encourage, or even tolerate. I don’t want more of this to happen around me–or to me.

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