Earlier this afternoon, I was sitting on a bench in the park in the middle of my apartment complex — sipping tea with honey, writing what I hoped were clever captions for some photos, and watching the dogs and little kids that belong to my neighbors playing on the colorful wooden park equipment. It was sunny and warm with a light breeze, seed pods were tumbling from the trees and attempting a 10.0 splashless landing in my tea mug and the teenage couple (both in hoodies, of course) on the bench nearest me were engaged in an extremely serious conversation about shoes between drags of their cigarettes.
I’m not describing this scene because I’m practicing for a future creative nonfiction class in which I have to describe the most cliché moment of my day. Usually we writers attempt to focus on the unique moments in our lives, but I’m writing about this particular moment because of, rather than in spite of, how very generic it was. This park could be in Denver, or Sydney, or Johannesburg. Other than the fact that everyone around me is speaking Spanish, there is nothing to distinguish this moment in this place from a Tuesday afternoon in a small park in any major city in the world. There are no bullets flying overhead, no men on the corner sporting gang colors, no guerrillas or paramilitares lurking in the trees.
When I talk to people back at home, I often get the impression that they think I’m living in some kind of slightly-tamed war zone. I understand where the basic idea comes from, of course — nobody tries to deny that Colombia has a difficult and violent history, and it’s true that until fairly recently, there were many regions of the country (and city neighborhoods) that even locals, much less foreigners, wouldn’t dare go. Obviously, like any other major city, Bogotá still has its fair share of dangerous areas, where a gringa like me shouldn’t walk alone, and nobody would dream of wearing a fancy watch or even a wedding ring. Bogotá isn’t all puppies and sunshine, but can you think of any city that is? Note: the Scandinavian countries are excepted from this question. That’s cheating.
There are days when I’m walking around the city and I’m physically stopped in my tracks by how beautiful it is, and how lucky I feel to live here. I can see the mountains from practically wherever I stand. There’s a chain restaurant here that sells everything in cones, from temaki to ice cream (why this hasn’t caught on in the U.S. I cannot fathom. It is DELICIOUS. It would be so unbelievably successful at home). There are bright purple flowers outside my front door, kids hug me on a daily basis and I can buy eight eggs for about $1.25. And they’re good eggs, too. And that’s not even mentioning the people: the fruit vendor who gave me an extra few mangostinas just because, the doorman in my building who smiles at me every day, the friend-of-a-friend I met a few weeks ago who wants to study for a master’s in sustainable architecture.
If you’ve never been to Colombia, or to Latin America, or out of the country, I understand how you might have a false impression of what life is like here (American movies certainly don’t do anything to dispute that idea). We hear about the guerrillas, the drug trade, the history of violence, the poverty, the government corruption, and sometimes the “beautiful” women (they are beautiful, for sure, but I’d argue the image of the Colombian woman itself is more than a bit fetishized). We don’t hear about the flower stores every few blocks; about how everyone here seems to have a beautiful, purebred dog; about the vibrant live music scene; about those same beautiful women working as lawyers or government ministers; about how the city shuts down miles of major roads every Sunday so that the people of Bogotá can use them for biking, rollerblading and other exercise — and how thousands of people do use them, every week, like a big outdoor party on slow-moving wheels.
The Bogotá I know so far is one that is dealing with its troubled legacy as best it can, but it is not a city full of slums, ramshackle buildings and drug lords (for one thing, all the people with drug money buy houses outside of the city, for privacy. But I digress). There is so much beauty here, and so much positive energy from the people that are working to make it better. It’s a city that starts its day before sunrise, where people apologize when they so much as bump into you (unless you’re on the TransMilenio, but that’s a different story).
There are, of course, many differences between here and home, but they’re not all negative — and many things hardly feel different at all. I feel safe walking home at midnight in my neighborhood, and nobody has ever given me reason to feel otherwise. Just like most Americans, I have a local 24-hour grocery story, a laundry place, a bakery, a movie theater and a favorite nearby ATM. My friends and I complain about the price of drinks at certain bars, the traffic, the weather, how tired we are after work — all pretty far removed from concerns like gang shootouts or intimidating local gangs.
Later on, I plan to make a more detailed list of all the things about Bogotá that have convinced me to love it, but I feel like it’s important to emphasize just how far removed the current, real Bogotá is from the one that existed twenty years ago, and continues to exist only in the minds of other people. At the least, maybe my parents’ friends will stop harassing them with unfounded concerns about my physical safety. I’m fine, guys. I promise.