On Comfort Zones, and How (Not) to Take a Cab in Bogotá

So you may or may not have heard about what happened to the DEA agent here last week. They’ll figure out the full story in time, but what seems to be the truth as far as we know is that the guy hailed a cab near midnight in a busy (wealthy) part of town, was driven a few blocks before some other guys got in and tried to rob him (what’s called a paseo millonario here — normally they’ll drive you around to a few ATMs and make you withdraw as much money as possible before dropping you off on a random street somewhere. This is why I never carry bank cards when I go out at night, as an extra precaution). The guy must have tried to fight back, which ended badly for him — a few stab wounds, taken to the hospital, died shortly thereafter. I’m sure there’s a shitstorm happening over at the US Embassy right now — according to someone I know who works there, the memos have been flying all week, which I think is about as serious as bureaucracy gets — because this guy pretty much did everything they tell you not to do. Never hail cabs off the street, especially not at night; always lock the doors when you get in the cab; make sure your friends see the placa (plate) of the car you’re taking; don’t carry your credit cards with you if you’re out drinking at night; be extra cautious when leaving high-traffic zones frequented by people with lots of money. These are all things people will tell you not to do a million times; whether you listen is your own choice. And many of us really don’t. I know that up until about two months ago, I didn’t. At least not as much as I should have.

So let’s back up a second here, because I’m skipping ahead. One thing that you notice after living in Bogotá for three days, three weeks, three years: everyone has been robbed. Everyone. Colombians, foreigners, tourists, residents — it doesn’t matter. Everyone has a story: a bag slashed on a bus, a wallet taken on the TransMilenio, a man with a gun in Candelaria, robbers pretending to be house painters in an apartment building, phone calls describing fake kidnappings and asking for money. The question isn’t if, it’s when.

But the thing is, sometimes the when takes a long time to arrive. Sometimes you’re here for a year, and yeah, you get bad vibes from sketchy dudes on the bus sometimes or worry that someone is standing too close to you and move away, but that’s it. And you start to forget to keep two hands on your phone, to watch your bag, to be careful where you go to the ATM. You start to get comfortable.

Comfort is a good thing, of course. We all want to be comfortable where we live, and this is as good a place to be comfortable as any. But comfort can’t come at the cost of safety and awareness, and that’s where we start to slip. That’s where my friend slipped when she didn’t keep an eye on her bag while out dancing; where I slipped sitting by the ocean in Cartagena; where this guy probably slipped when he opened the door to the first cab that came by. We forget that our happiness doesn’t put us in a bubble, and that it can happen at any time. That if it happens to Colombians, it will happen to us. That all we can do is take every reasonable precaution, and listen to the people who know better when they tell us to, for the love of god, just wait the extra three minutes it takes to call a cab.

But let’s be clear about this, Colombia is not a hotbed of daily kidnappings and stabbings. This is not Mexico. It’s not Pakistan. Bogotá is not Aleppo. The vast majority of people here are wonderful and well-intentioned, taxi drivers included. I’ve been lectured on several occasions by fatherly taxi drivers who are concerned that I’m not taking enough precautions to be safe. I once had a half-hour conversation about life, travel and the national university at 2 a.m. with a cab driver who is probably younger than my brother. Yes, the security could be better, overall, but it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of people in any given place and job are just trying to do that job and keep moving on. We all just need to pay attention to where we’re going.

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5 thoughts on “On Comfort Zones, and How (Not) to Take a Cab in Bogotá

  1. Hi Natalie,

    I didn’t quite catch the point of this post, which is putting it mildly. I also find your tone offensive. If his family reads this, are they illogical to conclude that you’re saying that he was asking for it by not following (as you assume) all the precautions? Look, I understand that the whole no dar papaya attitude is contagious, and it’s hard to not pick it up when you live there (you essentially have to so as to make sense of senseless tragedies and be able to tell yourself that you can prevent becoming a victim yourself), but I think it’s really important to not become desensitized to violence and suffering, even if it does make you feel more like one of the locals. I don’t see any expression of sympathy in what you wrote. It’s not just about a political “shitstorm” brewing– a guy died. Sorry if I’m coming off as self-righteous as I thought you did.

    Also, perhaps not daily, but I would say that Colombia absolutely is a hotbed of kidnappings and stabbings. Define hotbed, I guess. Saying that most people there are wonderful and well-intentioned is meaningless– you could say that about people in every country of the world. Obviously Colombia is not Mexico, Pakistan, or Syria, but nor is it anything close to, say, the U.S. or Western Europe. To say that the security in Colombia could be better is just insulting and unbelievable understatement; I assume that you can blithely say that because you’ve had some minor things pickpocketed that you could afford to lose in the first place. Many, many innocent people lose their lives, and all the paying attention in the world often doesn’t do a thing to prevent that. Please don’t minimize or try to justify in any way terrible things that happen, even if it is in a country that we all love.

    Here’s a blog post from today on this very topic: http://mikesbogotablog.blogspot.com/2013/06/a-nation-kidnapped.html

    • Yikes! This is clearly why I shouldn’t be allowed to work without an editor. Unsupervised thinking may admittedly not be my forte. Pardon the novella-length response, but I want to try to do my best to address what you’ve said here, because you’ve raised some really valid points that I don’t want to ignore.

      First of all, what happened to this agent was absolutely a tragedy. I feel for his family, and while it would be terrible to happen to anyone, it’s especially sad given that he clearly had a life he enjoyed and family here. That he lost his life because of what was essentially an awful accident or unlucky situation is horribly sad, and I do realize that pointing out the contrast with the whole Embassy spiel does come off very much like victim-blaming, which is obviously neither sensitive nor accurate. I guess it was more to point out that it wasn’t like a meteor-fell-from-the-sky level of accident, but the point is that it was an accident nonetheless, so going into details is just unnecessary and pretty much insensitive hair-splitting.

      I think what I was sort of trying to get at, which I clearly did a horrendous job articulating through my sleep-deprived brain at my desk today, is that there’s a tough balance to strike between what I’d like to feel and what the reality is here, in terms of security. I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, but I do think that going through the various stages of participating in life here (only as a foreigner, obviously, which is an entirely different context, but it’s all I’ve got) I personally have become a little too secure, and while that’s a nice ideal, it’s also problematic, given that these things do happen on a frequent basis. Whether it’s because of some misguided sense of invincibility that seems to attach itself to a foreign passport or because I do try to look at the positive aspects of life here, there are times when it’s almost too easy not to see that this country has the largest number of IDPs in the world. And that violence is a way of life both here in the city and in the places that highways don’t reach. And that illegal mining is growing for a reason. And that being foreign is not any sort of protection, that trying not to dar papaya only goes so far, that most people know better than to ever buy into the idea of this false sense of security.

      On the other hand, I think it’s also important to consider the unequal standard highlighted here. As some people have pointed out, the government (Santos included) is using this incident as a means to call attention to issues of security in the city and the country as a whole. There’s a reward offered, Santos is personally lecturing the police force and saying it’s ruined any progress they may have made – and this is all well and good, and progress does need to be made in terms of security, but it’s upsetting that it takes the death of a foreign government employee to catalyze this type of response. That daily crime in Bogotá, or Cauca, or Norte de Santander, is easy to brush off, because it happens to regular citizens. That the fact that every person here has been robbed is normal, as opposed to something that sparks equal outrage. That “no dar papaya” has to be a way of life here, because the alternative is to allow terrible things to happen to you, because it’s so certain that they will. That there’s so little faith in the ability of the powers that be to maintain security that it is almost easy to become desensitized to the constant drumbeat of violence.

      And then there’s the third part, where Santos might have a point, because it does confirm stereotypes. It does cast a terrible light on a city of people who, for the most part, don’t deserve it. It plays into confirmation bias about a group rather than individuals, and I think it’s important not to lose track of the fact that just because a nation has a history of violence does not mean the people themselves are violent, or split between antagonists and victims. Like in other historical conflict zones, there are echoes that continue affecting places and people long after the original action may have ended. And these echoes are very loud.

      But I do think it’s relevant to keep in mind, as much as possible, that there are many people who are working to improve and stabilize their own environment so that maybe their children won’t have to grow up learning the same survival tactics, watching the same repetitive cycle play out in front of them. That for every person who does something to tear things down, someone else is trying to build them back up. And that the builders do outnumber the destroyers.

      Ultimately though, I apologize again for the tone here seeming flippant or uncaring. I certainly didn’t intend for it to come off that way – it was sort of a condensed thought process of everything written here, in the interest of not inflicting a novel upon everyone. It seems like that might have been a better idea, though, in the interest of not sounding like a complete asshole.

      Thank you for your comment, and for calling me out on this. I hope this seems a bit clearer and less offensive now. It’s always important to have people keeping us honest, especially when we do a bad job getting words from our heads onto a page. And especially when it’s about something that ultimately is just about a tragic event that deserves to be discussed with more respect.

      • I apologize for writing so strongly. I know from experience that it’s easy for various reasons to begin to justify or rationalize or downplay things in Colombia, but now that I’m no longer there I’ve concluded that I wasn’t doing Colombia any favors by pretending that those things were OK or not so bad. Colombians deserve much better. Still, I wasn’t in a position to lecture you. And I do consider Colombians to be violent– many have told me as much themselves. I also consider Americans to be very violent. I don’t know how you can separate a violent nation from the people in it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that every person is that way. It’s an unfortunate trend, however, and the reasons are complex and deep-rooted, as you know. Thanks for your response– I too appreciate being called out on what I say and write, and lord knows I need it.

  2. Im not really sure about this – you are trying to dispell myths about Bogota and then reinforcing those about Mexico. I dont think DF (or many other places in Mexico) is any more sketchy than Bogota – and maybe less considering the size difference. Bogota is great, but you dont need to reinforce negative stereotypes about another place in order to prove the point.

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