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.


Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #2: Giving Unsolicited (Beauty) Advice

“Your hair looked better yesterday.”

“You should wear red more often.”

“That dress makes you look skinny.”

“Why don’t you send your resume to that [university/publication/school/business even though it’s totally unrelated to your skill set or current job]?”

“You don’t have a Colombian boyfriend? You should have a Colombian boyfriend.”

“Have you gained weight? It looks like you’ve gained weight.”

One thing I’ve noticed over the last year and a half is a particularly large cultural difference between here and home in terms of the focus on appearance, and the corollary social acceptability of making comments based on that appearance. And not just from your mother or grandmother, which might be expected. No, this is co-workers, students, friends of friends, the apartment doorman, people sitting next to you on the bus. Friends of mine here are often surprised when I explain to them that, in the U.S., telling someone — especially someone you don’t know — that their hair looks messy or their clothing is unflattering is generally considered, well, rude. Here, it’s a public service. But wouldn’t you want to know?

And yes, okay, I understand that logic when it comes to spinach between your teeth or leggings that become upsettingly see-through in sunlight, but we Americans do seem to draw the line pretty quickly as far as commenting on physical appearance is concerned. Compliments are allowed, but anything that remotely resembles a critique is best kept quiet. Most of us have, at some point, been the target of a well-timed maternal “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

This isn’t to say that Colombians are rude — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. They tend to be much more complimentary about pretty much everything, pretty much all the time. Last year will undoubtedly be the high point in my life of being told that I’m beautiful, as it happened at least once every day. The thing is, though, most Colombians say “You look/are beautiful” like the rest of us say “How are you?” which does somewhat take away from the significance of the sentiment.

Disregarding overuse of complimentary adjectives, though, the fact is that things that are interpreted as rude, insulting or invasive by Americans are just normal here. It’s not an insult if it’s true, right? And why wouldn’t you want to know your hair looked better yesterday, so you can do it like that again? In a weird way, I do understand this logic — it comes from a place of wanting to be helpful, not cruel, even if that help does come out sounding like something that would be best left unsaid. Still, as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to my appearance beyond what earrings I’m wearing (always the most important decision of the day), it’s been strange adjusting to people feeling like they have the right to comment on how I look.

I think it’s partially tied to the whole American complex of independence: I can dress however the hell I want, goddammit, and you don’t get to say anything about it. I definitely grew up with a bit of this attitude, and it hasn’t gone away yet, nor do I want it to. But on top of that, I also have more than a bit of a strong feminist reaction to it — while telling people how they look and how they should look is liberally applied to all genders here, it’s far more often directed at women. This is linked to all sorts of other underlying factors about beauty standards and how women are judged here, but there does seem to be a general sentiment that this advice is more “useful” for women. Because we care more, or because our bodies are public property for commenting, or for a whole range of other reasons which I’m sure would make for a great master’s thesis. On a personal level, though, it’s mostly just annoying. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m not exactly the type who enjoys being told what to do, unless it’s coming from a really good editor, and I’m certainly not in the habit of taking advice from any grown adult who thinks that sparkly pink t-shirts designed for teenagers or leopard-print pants are an appropriate fashion choice.

Then again, this objection is probably why I don’t have a Colombian boyfriend. Which, as far as everyone is concerned, is almost certainly for the best.


Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#3. Aguardiente

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Boston, You’re My Home

You can't tell how cold it is just from looking.

You can’t tell how cold it is just from looking.

Things happened last year. Lots of things. Terrible things.

A bomb went off in a crowded intersection here in Bogotá, killing two people and wounding almost 40, including its intended target, a former minister in the Colombian government. We found out about it at school, late in the morning. Teachers began scrambling for their phones, calling loved ones, making sure everyone was okay. I didn’t have anyone to call, but I still thought of all the people there. I knew that intersection well. I know it even better now — it’s my TransMilenio station, fifteen minutes from my apartment. I walk through there several times each week. I never think about bombs.

In July, a deeply troubled young man with too-easy access to weapons turned a Colorado movie theater into a combat zone. One of our volunteers, one of my close friends here, was from Colorado. From Denver. Her then-boyfriend’s parents live in Aurora. It could’ve been them.

In December, while I was spending a few days in my favorite town, another deeply troubled young man with too-easy access to weapons killed 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school. I saw the news while making breakfast in the kitchen of my hostel. I didn’t believe it. It couldn’t have happened. But it did happen. Having just spent the year working in a school, Newtown devastated me. I was so overwhelmed by the whole thing that it took me a week just to figure out how to cry about it. One of my closest friends here is from Connecticut. It could’ve been her family. It could’ve been someone she knew.

Those things happened. They touched me in various ways, either through people I knew, my own experiences or just the part of my humanity that gives a shit about other people. We always think we know how to deal with things. We think we learn. And then things prove us wrong.

On Monday, April 15th, Patriots Day, Marathon Monday, two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Boylston Street, right there, was packed with people eight deep — there to cheer on their loved ones, to support people raising thousands of dollars for cancer research, or just to watch some of the world’s top athletes do what they do best.

Plenty of other people have written about this, some very eloquently, but it bears repeating. Patriots Day is a special, unique day in Boston. I’ve been watching small-town Patriots Day parades, the early Red Sox game and the Marathon results since I can remember. Almost everyone has the day off from work. Nobody goes to school, hardly anyone to the office. Even the Sox get to leave work early. It somehow usually manages to be sunny, college students treat it as just another opportunity for day drinking, and thousands of people line the streets from Hopkinton to Copley to watch their friends, family and loved ones run. People train for years and travel across continents to run the Boston Marathon. Even people who don’t like sports like Marathon Monday. It’s an event, a spectacle, a day to revel in the freedom that our city stands for (and, yes, the freedom from a 9-to-5 day, too) and just enjoy people being good at something they care about.

This time, it wasn’t the parents of a friend’s ex-boyfriend near the location. This wasn’t a transportation station I know, or a state I’ve driven through. This was my city. These were my streets. I’ve walked down that street hundreds of times, stood in almost that exact spot to watch the Bruins victory parade, sat in the square trying to tan during my too-short lunch hour. I know hundreds of people who were near there on Monday. I know people running in the marathon. I know journalists covering the marathon. I know people who work in office buildings nearby, or live a few streets away. Because Boston is the size of a postage stamp, my parents live only five miles away; my brother, probably less than two. I know those streets. I know those stores. In the background of the video footage of the explosion are places I’ve shopped, places I’ve bought coffee, benches where I’ve sat. These are my streets. These are my friends. This is my city. Since the September afternoon almost 25 years ago when I first opened my eyes in Beth Israel Hospital in the middle of Boston, this has been my city. This will always be my city.

These bombings are not just some senseless act of violence. This is personal.

In the minutes and hours and day following this horrific event, I saw and heard voices from all over telling us to have some perspective. To think about others. To remember that the streets of Chicago are choked with the bodies of murdered young people abandoned by the systems that are supposed to protect them. To think about how events like this are a reality of daily life for people in Israel, or Pakistan, or Iraq. To weigh it against the US bombing, that very day, of a wedding party in Afghanistan, which killed dozens.

To which I say: yes. Yes, these things happen, too. Yes, these things are terrible, too. Yes, we deserve to give these equal weight, and our country needs to have a very serious conversation about why we value the lives and deaths of some people more than others. This is valid. But on Monday, April 15th, it wasn’t. Not for me. My smart, liberal, caring friends, who are deeply concerned with the ills of the world — I wanted to grab them and scream at them.

Because they saw that news alert and thought, oh, how awful. They didn’t see it and immediately wonder where their only brother was that day. Their minds didn’t start racing down the list of people running the marathon; their high school friends who had biked the whole marathon route in the middle of the night before; their former co-workers who were standing on the finish line; their father who, years earlier, might have been standing on that line as well. They didn’t grow up with “Yankees Suck!” as a mantra, spend teenage afternoons hanging out doing nothing in the grungy Harvard Square Pit, know every T stop between Alewife and Ashmont by heart. This isn’t their life. It’s easy to call for rationality when it isn’t your family or friends who might be lying in a hospital bed. It’s easy to watch like a movie when you’ve never eaten at the restaurant that is now a pile of broken pieces of metal and bodies. It’s easy to cast it against the world’s other ills when it doesn’t feel like someone just walked up to you, looked you directly in the eyes and then punched you right in the face. It’s easy to tell other people how they should feel. It doesn’t mean they should always listen.

And no, I don’t personally know any of the victims (as far as I know, yet), but that’s just a matter of pure, stupid luck. And, in a way, I do know them, because everyone in this tiny city, where half the population has allegedly met the mayor, everyone knows one another somehow. One of the three people killed, a little boy from Dorchester whose father had just finished the race, was 8 years old. He could have been one of my kids when I worked at a summer camp in his neighborhood in 2011. Another, a young woman who loved to watch triumphant runners cross the finish line, lived in my hometown of Arlington. She worked at a restaurant half a mile from my house. The third was a graduate student from China studying at Boston University, where my brother spent four years and my father still teaches. I don’t know these people, but I know who they are. More than 170 other people are in local hospitals, many with fewer limbs than they had on Monday morning — thank whatever higher power you believe in that we have the best medical facilities in the world, and amazing people who could respond to this disaster as well as anyone could hope. But still. There’s no reason they’re lying in Boston Medical Center or Mass General or Children’s Hospital, no reason there are still pieces of them lying in front of the Forum restaurant, no reason they will never run the same way again.

But there are other things, too, and these are things that go beyond your politics or stereotypes or what you think you know from the movies. These are the things we mean when we talk about driving away the darkness. Again, people have pointed these things out, but they bear repeating. When (or if) you watch the video of the explosions, wait until just after everything shakes, and then look. You’ll see people — cops, firefighters, medical teams, and just ordinary people who happened to be nearby, people like Carlos Arredondo and the sergeant who saved a young woman named Victoria — running, not away from, but toward the site of the explosion. There’s not even time to think — it’s just an instinct. You see these people tearing away barricades, clearing those uninjured from the scene, lifting people onto stretchers, motioning first responders over. You see two young men in military uniforms spring instantly into action, ripping away dividers to reach injured people. You see police officers remaining calm, directing others to safety. You see doctors and medical professionals who just finished the race immediately turn to help others, ignoring their own exhaustion and failing muscles. You see people allowing the best of themselves to come through in the worst of situations. You see what I see when I think about my city.

Boston is far from perfect. We have a long history of vicious and institutional racism, segregated neighborhoods, deep class divides, religious discrimination, belief systems that tend to lag behind our more progressive government policies, and a less-than-welcoming attitude toward outsiders. We have a reputation for being one of the less-friendly cities in America, to put it kindly. We’re always in a hurry. Our streets make no sense, people’s directions aren’t any more helpful, and where you went to school is often the ultimate test of your value as a human being. These things are true, and they are significant, but there are other things that are true, too. People in Boston believe strongly — sometimes too strongly — in the values we hold dear: independence, free speech, solidarity, the right to our opinions, the importance of family (both by birth and by choice) and the indisputable fact that the Yankees do, and always will, suck. We are fiercely loyal, and ferociously protective of the things we deem deserving of protection. We are convinced that our city is the center of the universe because we really believe it can be — the potential is there.

Platitudes come fast and easy after an event like this. President Obama is from Chicago (the other American city I consider something close to home). He didn’t grow up in Boston. He doesn’t know Boston (because this is what we do — if you’re not from here, you never will be). He doesn’t know just how true it is when he says that we are a resilient city. We are beyond resilient. We are unbreakable.

I have a necklace I received as a Christmas gift just before I moved to Colombia. It’s one of those popular Etsy ones, a sterling silver pendant in the shape of Massachusetts, with a heart cutout right where the city of Boston goes. I’ve worn it every day since I arrived here, to remind myself where I come from, who I am. Because no matter where I move across the globe, there’s a piece of my heart and my identity that will always be there, perched on the waterfront, looking at the lights.

And I’m not alone. We are a small city, but we contain multitudes. And we are too many, and too stubborn, to ever knock down.

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love #3: Aguardiente

Many countries have their own unique, distinctive liquor (sake, ouzo, deadly Czech moonshine, and so on), and Colombia is no different. The ubiquitous drink of Andean Colombia — the one you’ll see in everyone’s hands at a night out at the bar or club, the one that makes an inevitable appearance at every party — is called aguardiente (literally, fire water). Aguardiente (or guaro, for short, if y’all are on a nickname basis) is a clear, anise-flavored liquid made of processed sugarcane. It’s produced either with sugar or without, and typically has an alcohol content a bit north or south of 25%. It is also heinously, ferociously disgusting.

So many ways to poison yourself…

I’ve just insulted probably about 94% of the Colombians I know by dissing their national intoxicant of choice, but I’m sorry. Sometimes you just have to tell it like it is, and aguardiente is nothing but horrible. Despite the best (or worst, depending on one’s perspective) efforts of my friends here, my assimilation does not extend to this terrible creation. As I’ve said on multiple occasions, there are only about four things I don’t like about Colombia: aguardiente is right at the top of that list.

The thing is, any relationship we could ever have was doomed from the start, as guaro made the fatal error of tasting like anise. I have never been able to understand why anyone would willingly ingest anything anise-flavored — from unappealing black licorice to the look-nicer-than-they-taste cookies a well-meaning family friend gives us around Christmas every year, it’s one of the easiest ways I can think of to ruin something that otherwise might be delicious. Want to make a cookie suddenly revolting? Add anise. Want to make me avoid a cake like the plague? Frost it with anise. Want to make me swear off drinking forever? Force me to drink aguardiente (or tequila, but that’s a different story).

My favorite is #3: “Because it’s perfect to drink alone or mixed.” OR NEVER.

So the taste is the primary hurdle, but it’s not the only one. The way drinking is done in most non-beer-based social situations here is that a group of people buys a bottle and then spends the rest of the night taking shots out of little plastic cups that are incredibly easy to accidentally crush in one’s hands. And this doesn’t just happen at bars with tables — if you go out to a club, you’ll see people strolling around passing out shots of guaro like it’s Anise Christmas. To me this seems both illogical and like an invitation for spillage, but nobody put me in charge, obviously. It’s kind of like being back in college, but instead of ending up with terrible-tasting alcohol by necessity or legality issues, we somehow get it by choice (again, definitely not mine). Having shots forced upon me is not necessarily my favorite way to consume alcohol, especially in crowded public spaces — having shots of something that seriously tests my gag reflex forced upon me is probably one of my least favorite ways.

I suspect that most Colombians have a Stockholm Syndrome-type relationship with guaro — since they started drinking it when they were around 15 years old, they’re just used to it by now. Or maybe some of them genuinely like anise — after all, it’s a flavor that shows up in liquors produced in various other countries around the globe, so it’s not like Colombians are the only crazy ones. I just happen to be stuck with them.

Why drink like an adult when you could be using a 1-liter juicebox instead?

The one benefit of the existence of guaro is being able to punk people with it. When I went home for Christmas in December, I brought a few juiceboxes of the stuff (oh yeah, they sell liquor in juiceboxes here. File that under “Awesome Things Colombians Do Correctly”) back with me as “gifts.” My poor, unsuspecting friends thought it was so nice of me to bring genuine Colombian drinking material all the way home for them — until they tried it. Curses were uttered, blame was cast, friendships were called into question, I did a lot of giggling. It was absolutely worth it, but it also didn’t involve me actually consuming any of it. So I guess I’m okay with aguardiente as long as it’s not entering my digestive system.

The point is, if I ever manage to overcome my intense loathing of hot weather (unlikely) and move to the coast, at least 30 percent of my justification will be because they drink more rum there. Now that’s a liquid pastime I support.

Other Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love:

#4. Agua de Panela

#5. Inappropriate Uses of English

#6. Colombia’s Got Talent

#7. Horrifying Jeans

#8. Malls

#9. Wearing Heels Everywhere, All the Time

#10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

Some Thoughts About Visas and Victories

So my grand plan to move triumphantly back to Colombia and have a life here as a strong, independent woman (or at least a woman who really likes coffee and arepas) hinged upon one very important detail: getting a visa. As those of us hailing from the Great White Devil know all too well, working under an illegal visa is generally frowned upon by governments, and can lead to scary consequences like alarmingly large fines or even deportation. These are not consequences I want to face at any point in my life, and certainly not now, when everything else is proceeding according to plan. So then. A visa was required.

But how, one might ask, does a brunette gringa with a serious addiction to maracuyá ice cream go about obtaining a visa? They’re not exactly handing them out like candy these days, although it’s certainly easier to get one here than somewhere like my dearly beloved homeland. Of course, I had one last year through WorldTeach, but it expired in December, and I couldn’t renew it because I wasn’t going to be doing the same kind of work, or working with the same organization. So renewing was out.

This left me with three options, which are the three basic options facing any foreigner who wants to be able to work for an extended period of time in Colombia:

1. Stay on a 90-day tourist visa, renew it once at the immigration office for a maximum stay of 180 consecutive days, and then leave the country for 72 hours and come back in on another (non-renewable) 90-day visa. Wash, rinse, repeat every 90 days until the Colombian government catches up with you and asks you to cease and desist. This is a perfectly acceptable choice for people who don’t intend to be here longer than 6 months or so, or people who are only looking to pick up part-time, under-the-table work like private classes or manning the desk at a hostel or something. I am neither of those people, and this was going to add totally unnecessary amounts of stress to my life, so this wasn’t ever anything except an absolutely last resort.

2. Find work with a company willing to sponsor a work visa. This is what the vast majority of people end up doing, and it works fine if you find a good, dependable organization that actually keeps its visa-sponsoring promises (which is more difficult than it sounds). If you come here with a school or organization, you already have this set up; otherwise, if you manage to find an institute or other business that’s willing to commit to sponsoring you, great. The company I’m teaching with actually did let me know that they could sponsor a work visa for me if I needed it, which was good to have as a fallback plan. However, from my personal point of view there are a few issues with this option. The first is that, once you have a visa with a company, you are tied to that company. As far as the Colombian government is concerned, you are only allowed to work in Colombia if you are working with that company. The minute your job status changes (and it will, for most of us expendable, commitment-phobic foreigners), that visa is no longer valid. Of course, lots of people ignore this, and I know people that are here on work visas from places where they no longer work, and they probably won’t get caught, and it’ll be fine, but you know, it’s still not what you’re supposed to do. I’ve never been a massive stickler for rules, but when it comes to things like international work status requirements, I like to stay on the right side of things.

The other issue with this kind of visa is a logistical one. For some inexplicable bureaucratic reason, you can’t actually get this visa issued in Colombia, which means you have to go to the consulate in a neighboring country: Panama, Ecuador, or Venezuela, which is where most people go. This is a pretty significant hassle and you lose at least a whole weekend, if not longer, going back and forth to the border and waiting in a bunch of lines. Obviously it’s not the worst thing in the entire world — I certainly wouldn’t cry about going back to Ecuador for a few days — but I preferred to get the whole thing taken care of without having to leave Bogotá.

3. Which brings us to option #3: apply for an independent worker visa. I will readily admit that I am not smart enough to have thought of this by myself — I borrowed the idea from the fabulous Zoë over at La Blogotana, who, in addition to having a great name for her blog, wrote an invaluable series of posts last summer about this very process. She (and several other people I know) applied for this visa as independent English teachers, which seems to have worked for most of them. However, I decided to apply for it as an independent journalist, since that’s what I’m planning to do this year, more so than teaching. From everything I’ve heard, it’s much easier to apply for this kind of visa when you can show past experience and, even better, a degree, since Colombians are all about appearances and seeming official. Well, lucky me, with my college degree in journalism and published clips, I thought I had a pretty decent shot at it. Which is to say, kids, unless you have a journalism degree, don’t try this at home.

It’s not the easiest or most fun process in the world, but dealing with government offices rarely is. To make a labyrinthine story somewhat short, getting an independent worker visa requires three steps:

  • Going to the DIAN office at 7:30 in the goddamn morning on a Saturday because that’s the only time you’ll actually be able to see a representative, still being the 232nd person in line despite getting there before the office even opens at 8, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a huge freezing room for 4 hours while freaking out that you’ve somehow missed your turn as the one mean guy in all of Colombia reminds all of you at least every five minutes that if you miss your turn it’s too bad, finally getting to actually speak to someone around 11:30 and explaining to him that you want to work as a freelance journalist, waiting for him to pick some mysterious code that identifies this activity and then finally taking your shiny new RUT form that qualifies you to exist as a commercial entity in Colombia and getting out of there as fast as humanly possible. Eating an enormous brunch-type meal is highly recommended after this step.
  • Going to the Cámara de Comercio (Chamber of Commerce) office to register yourself as an independent business, forgetting one crucial document that you need, having to go back the next day because of course there isn’t time to go home and come back with it before the office closes, submitting the application, waiting four days for the certificate to arrive, going back a third time to pick it up, only tolerating this whole process because the incredibly pregnant young woman working at the CC desk is possible the sweetest and most helpful person in the entire city of Bogotá. Eating arepas from the cart on the corner outside the office is highly recommended during each journey.
  • Two weeks after starting this whole shenanigan, taking all of these forms plus a massive pile of other documents (including, but not limited to, copies of three different pages of your passport, official visa request form filled out, formal letter stating why you’re applying for this visa, resumé, copy of diploma, letter of recommendation from a potential employer [optional but helpful], copies of published clips, recent bank statement and several unflattering photos) to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriories office near Calle 100, getting a number, sitting and trying to read a book but failing because you keep checking the screen every ten seconds to see if they’ve called your number yet because they seem to call them in an order similar to the bombing pattern in Gravity’s Rainbow, finally getting your number called after a surprisingly short wait of less than an hour, thanking all the higher powers that you got assigned to a youngish guy (this is why you showered and brushed your hair this morning!), explaining to the very nice youngish guy why you want this visa, making sure to include the phrase “I just love Colombia” as many times as reasonably possible, handing over all of your documents, getting sent back to the waiting room while he reviews them, trying not to gnaw off the two existing fingernails you have left, getting called back in less than 20 minutes, watching with ferocious glee as the guy controlling your destiny prints off a new, shiny visa that qualifies you to work as an independent journalist until February 2014 and attaches it to your passport, and trying not to hug the dude or do an obvious victory dance until exiting the doors. Going to the awesome vegetarian restaurant around the corner and eating a giant lunch is the only way to celebrate this resounding victory.

So there you have it. One month and a lot of smiling at government employees later, I am legally allowed to be here working until one year from now. I can’t imagine going through this process without speaking at least a competent level of Spanish — it certainly makes explaining your case significantly easier. Plus, sometimes people find accents endearing. Whatever the magic key was (maybe it was the lucky underwear? Who knows?), the point is that it worked. I can finally take a deep breath, relax, and start doing all those things I’d been putting off until I was legal.

Now I just have to go get my Colombian ID card…

Guess Who’s Back for Round Two?

¿Qué más, friends and lovers?

Yes, so I’m back in Bogotá, if the Spanish wasn’t a clue. I’ve actually been back for almost a month now, occupied with moving into the new place, job-hunting, figuring out the closest place to buy avocados (2 blocks away) and beer (3 or 5 blocks away, depending on price point), dealing with floor remodeling, playing with our kitten and so on. It’s been a busy month, as moving time tends to be, but I’ve still had time to be overwhelmingly gleeful about my return.

Sure, moving to a foreign country with the intention of working as a freelance something-or-other is not exactly the wisest move when it comes to job security (or health insurance, for that matter — miss you, Obamacare!), but it’s a pretty wise move as far as my happiness level is concerned. The proverbial “they” keep coming up with these studies showing Colombia is one of the world’s happiest countries, and whether or not those studies include misplaced gringas, they’re on to something. I can’t help but feel overjoyed to be back here, even when I’m sweating on a packed bus stressing out about being late for a meeting (maybe a little less so then, but hey, price of admission and so on).

The wonderful Brighid — who has abandoned me for the warmer embraces of Barranquilla (more on that later) — and I were talking about honeymoon phases this week, as one is wont to do after moving to a new city. It’s almost inevitable when relocating that you go through this part of the “culture shock curve,” for lack of a better term. You know — when you’re first there, and everything is NEW and EXCITING and DIFFERENT and you just can’t stop staring at everything (and sometimes everyone). The honeymoon phase is wonderful, but it almost always ends, sometimes with an abrupt crash.


But what if it doesn’t? What if it never ends, or if it never happened at all? What if you’re just happy from day one, and then you just… keep being happy? Because I think that happens. I think maybe it happens more often here than in other places, like the steppes of Siberia. And I think it’s happened to me. And I couldn’t be more pleased about it.

Bogotá, todavía te quiero. It sure feels good to be back.

actually, I miss snow. but not that much snow

I’m sorry — do you guys at home have a lot of snow or something?


Bogotá, Te Quiero

So it’s finally happening. Tonight, at 11:59 p.m., I board a plane at Bogotá El Dorado’s shiny new international terminal, bound for JFK. Touchdown at 6:02 a.m., the usual customs wrangling (potentially with a few more pointed questions than usual), and a transfer to the equally shiny JetBlue terminal for my connection home to Boston. Logan homecoming should happen right around 10:40 a.m. tomorrow morning, as long as the world is still here.

For the record, I’m not dealing well with this. Overall, I like change, but I’m not a big fan of the enforced kind, and plane tickets are nothing if non-negotiable (unless you have lots of money to throw around). The idea of reverse culture shock has always been something that I didn’t think really applied to me — I love travel, but I also love homecomings. Coming home is much easier when you love your city so much it’s like a physical affliction. Mostly, though, I’ve never really experienced it before. I’ve been sad to leave places before, and I have a long list of planned return visits to places that I left too soon (I’m coming for you, Amsterdam and New Zealand), but the only other time I lived outside of the country for a significant period ended with a feeling of relief more than sadness. I was so happy to come home from Argentina that I didn’t even have space in my heart for culture shock. You can’t be shocked by something that’s welcome.

But then this year happened. This year, where I’ve been happy and comfortable, challenged but able to deal with it and grow with it. I didn’t realize how attached I was here until my plane ride from Lima to Cuzco, about two weeks ago. I was sleepy and my hostel only had instant coffee (practically a cardinal sin to me, after a year of Colombian tinto), so I wasn’t in the best frame of mind from the outset. And then my flight — my flight was full of people like me. Full of loud, enthusiastic, poorly dressed American tourists. Everyone speaking English. Nobody saying “chévere” or wearing totally age-inappropriate clothing. After spending this year surrounded on all sides by Spanish, by friendliness and disorganization, this sudden immersion back into almost-America felt like parachuting into a suddenly foreign region. It was strange and uncomfortable, and I sank into my chair, protected by my headphones, to hide from it all. All I can remember thinking right then was, “I want to go home.” Home, in this case, meant Bogotá. Because maybe it is home now, in a way.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m super excited to be capital-H Home for Christmas, to see my parents and my brother, to sleep on my friends’ sofas, to drink good beer and stay out late and have normal conversations with people in bars without the immediate need to justify my presence there, to walk through Boston and take the T and eat the entire stock of the breakfast cereal aisle at Stop and Shop and watch college football for like 3 days straight and touch snow again and mostly just be home. A year is a long time to be out of one’s comfort zone, and despite the extent to which I’ve fallen in love with Bogotá, a little comfort couldn’t hurt.

The underlying layer of that comfort, though, is the knowledge that I’m coming back in three weeks. That might be the most comforting thing of all.

Happy Holidays and a festive New Year to one and all! If you need me, I’ll be at a bar drinking as much Sam Adams as one can reasonably consume in a three-week period. God bless America, indeed.

Hasta 2013, Bogotá!


So I did some math this morning and realized that I have exactly one month until I’m back home. That’s right, kids — if all goes well, which is to say disregarding the possibility of my expiring somewhere on the Inca Trail or perishing in the midst of the predicted apocalypse, I’ll be landing at JFK sometime around 6 a.m. on December 21st. I still haven’t quite wrapped my mind about that reality — for all the talk going on amongst my friends and I lately about our first meals back in America, or all my efforts to ignore everyone’s Facebook updates about undoubtedly delicious Thanksgiving dinners, or my occasional annoyance that none of the emails I receive about events are ever relevant to me, I can’t figure out how to analyze the math in a way where the fact that I’ve been here for almost 11 months makes any sense. Sure, everyone always says “It feels like just yesterday that…” I won’t go so far as to say that it feels like yesterday, but it does feel like a whole bunch of yesterdays. It doesn’t feel like almost a year. It doesn’t feel like I’ve turned 24 here. And it definitely doesn’t feel like it’s time to go.

I always know when I need to move, because I do this thing where I start staring obsessively at every airplane overhead, wondering where they’re going, who’s aboard, why I’m not on that flight right now. It happened to me at home in Boston, it happened in Buenos Aires, it happened in Chicago. Even though I miss some of those places desperately (I still harbor a Charlie Brown-esque unrequited and unconsummated love for the Windy City that’s going to have to be remedied one of these days), the only recent time I can remember glancing at an airplane that I wasn’t about to board was one day where Bogotá was smothered in absolutely spectacular clouds and I couldn’t help watching the lights slice through the darkness. I’m just not ready to leave yet.

Of course, I’m ready to go home for the holidays. I miss my family, my friends, American football, Trader Joe’s, Harvard Square in December, good breakfast cereal, snow… the list goes on. I miss people. I miss things. But the unfortunate truth of where I am in my life is that I’m always going to miss people, places and things. My friends are scattered across the country, some of them across the world. I will never live within two miles of all of my closest friends at any point again in my life. Everything I love can never be in one place. And traveling doesn’t make it better — it exacerbates it. I keep moving, I keep falling in love, and then I keep moving on. I would rather be in love with everything than nothing, but it’s not my favorite kind of balancing act.

All of this is to say that, despite my itchy feet, I’m not done with Bogotá yet. Whenever I think, seriously think, about getting on a plane and never coming back, I start to freak out. I want to grab everything here that I care about and cling to it. You’re going to have to drag me away, I hiss to the imaginary authorities enforcing this mandatory evacuation.

But you know what? Nobody is enforcing it. I will be thrilled to go home in December, but I’m going to be just as happy to come back in January. Because yes, I’m coming back. It’s not exactly clear right now what I’m going to be doing (or how I’m going to make sure I feed myself), but that’s something I’ll figure out in the time between now and then. I’ve always landed on my feet so far in my life, and if a man can take the risk of jumping from an aircraft perched on the edge of space, the least my scaredy-cat self can do is try to make this work and see what happens. Because lord knows I won’t be jumping from any airplanes anytime soon.

Unless that Mayan apocalypse does happen, after all. Then I may not have a choice.

How can I think about leaving this place when I just want to wrap my arms around it?

Eight Things I Can Now Competently Do in Spanish… and Five I Still Can’t

It’s often hard to know how much progress you’re making with a language, since the incremental daily changes are near-impossible to measure as they happen. We don’t walk around going, “hey, my vowels sound just a little better today than they did on Tuesday!” Language development is a long-term process, something that happens over months rather than hours. Still, there are times when I manage to do something or make some point in a conversation that I know would have been absolutely impossible for me a year or even three months ago. These are the moments when I realize that I am still progressing, that my Spanish hasn’t stagnated at good-enough-to-buy-bus-tickets-but-not-good-enough-to-win-an-argument-about-homophobia (which, for the record, is right about where it is right now. But onwards! And upwards!). It’s important to acknowledge these little victories, if only for the fact that it keeps me motivated and hopeful that I can keep improving, every day.

A few of the things I can now accomplish in Spanish:

  1. Get something notarized without ruining any important paperwork (I am most self-impressed by this one. It’s a very confusing process, even in English!)
  2. Translate answers to questions as someone is speaking — again, without ruining anything important.
  3. Get from Bogotá to Manizales using three taxis, a plane and a bus without getting lost or ripped off.
  4. FedEx a document (to be fair, at this point I could probably fill out a shipping label in my sleep. Or in Mandarin).
  5. Get a haircut and actually have it turn out pretty much exactly as I want it.
  6. Explain why I’m a vegetarian and have people actually understand it. Insofar as most Colombians understand the concept of vegetarianism (anything more than “So you don’t like meat?” is progress).
  7. Give directions that are at least intended to be helpful and accurate.
  8. Take a yoga class without looking like a confused fool.

A few things I still can’t do:

  1. Make good jokes.
  2. Win the aforementioned argument about homophobia.
  3. Correctly write dates without double-checking the order of the days and months.
  4. Convince my attractive co-worker that I am obviously the perfect woman. Then again, I couldn’t do this in English, either.
  5. Explain American football.