25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

Link

If there was any further question about why I’m happy here, Colombia is ALL OVER this mental_floss listicle of “11 Fabulous Libraries in South America.” Disregarding their weird geographic decision to pretend that Costa Rica is part of South America, it’s a pretty cool list, and it’s exciting to see Colombia occupying so much space on it. So far, I’ve only made it to #8, Virgilio Barco, which is in Parque Simón Bolívar here in Bogotá, but I’ve got seven months to make it to all the others. In the meantime, how amazing does #1 look? It’s like Brazilian Hogwarts!

Writers, Wands and Weekend Wanderings (plus a brief mention of Westeros)

About 12 years ago, my mother began refusing to take me with her to bookstores except on very specific occasions, because I have this unfortunate habit wherein I attempt to read and/or buy almost the entire contents of the store (obviously disregarding any Dan Brown or Twilight books), and taking roughly three hours to do so. I have yet to grow out of this — and honestly have no intention of doing so anytime soon. It’s part of my eccentric charm, dammit! — so you can imagine how I felt about a week ago, when the Feria Internacional del Libro (International Book Fair, or Filbo, if you’re on a first-name basis) came to town.

too bad the world is ending this year. these are nice signs

Oh right, this is where we actually are. Thanks for the reminder.

I’m going to preface this whole post by clarifying that my idea of heaven is a room filled with books. Okay, and a freezer for ice cream. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt to read said books to me. But for the moment, let’s stick with the books. I could (and have) happily spend basically all day in a library or bookstore, trying to absorb as much as possible before I’m forced to leave. However, the Filbo, which was held at Corferias — a lovely outdoor conference complex with various pavilions, fountains and people selling all manner of tasty snacks — was more than a room filled with books. It was about the equivalent of 500 rooms filled with books, and that’s not even getting into the exhibits, artists’ booths, auditoriums for speakers and the fake Iron Throne (why aren’t you watching Game of Thrones right now??), strategically placed for photos ops right outside one of the publishing house display rooms. [Sadly, I do not have a photo of myself there, since it was dark/there was a long line, but once I conquer Westeros for myself, I’ll have no shortage of opportunities to document it.]

what are you supposed to throw when you don't have any pennies?

Just don't put your books in the fountain.

Needless to say, I went three times — with rather diminishing returns, if we’re being honest, but it’s not like a complex filled with words could be anything less than glorious. I’ve been to a few book fairs in my life, both at home in Boston and one glorious time in Buenos Aires, when I got to chat with the fantastic, totally charming Junot Díaz (but that’s a different story), and I have to say the Bogotá one does a pretty good job of holding its own, give or take. Obviously, I only saw a small slice of it, as there was just an overwhelming amount of things to absorb there, but I think it did the city pretty proud. Brazil, not so much, but we’ll get to that.

The fair had already been here for over a week by the time I finally made it down, and I was already feeling like a terrible, guilty person for ignoring it for so long. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way of gallivanting around unfamiliar neighborhoods of Bogotá in search of literary inspiration. But Jonathan Safran Foer was speaking on Saturday afternoon, and the prospect of getting to hear a real, live author talk about writing! in English! was simply too much to resist. I made it there, covered in rain (further proof why I should never leave the house without my umbrella) and about 15 minutes late, and stumbled into a gorgeous auditorium about 3/4 full of people, all intently listening, many through headphones playing the Spanish translation.

I mean, I'm sure someone in Westeros has written one

Poems! For every occasion! Do you think they have poems for sitting on the Iron Throne?

Being one of the few people who can understand a non-translated presentation, whether it’s a speaker or a movie, is always kind of an amusing experience, what with the delayed reaction times. Whenever Safran Foer said something funny, I would be one of the few people laughing immediately — then, a few seconds later, when the translation caught up, the rest of the room would chuckle. I probably sounded like a crazy weirdo, but that’s nothing new for me.

I don’t have much to say about the talk — it was nice just to hear someone talking about writing, but to be perfectly honest, he came off as kind of a dick, which wasn’t unexpected, but it would’ve been nice for one of the few Americans there to make a slightly less pretentious impression. Then again, American fiction writers named Jonathan haven’t exactly been known for being modest or particularly charming lately, so I suppose it’s nothing new.

anyone want to buy me a Mockingjay pin?

Hands-down the best booth in the whole place.

I had better luck the next day, when I headed back (in sunlight this time!) to meet up with a few other volunteers. I’ve always treated book time as alone time, or Alone With Characters time, so it was definitely a bit of a challenge not being able to wander the shelves on my own schedule. Honestly, it was a challenge just trying not to lose anyone in the huge Sunday crowds, particularly in the packed, overheated pavilion containing artists, anime booths, comic vendors, caricaturists and other design products. Apparently the people of Bogotá are big fans of cartoons. Really the only part of the pavilion worth mentioning was a certain booth called Ollivander’s — selling all kinds of Harry Potter and even Hunger Games memorabilia, natch. I might have considered buying something, if I’d been able to get within five feet of it.

I'm sure if I understood Portuguese, this would be really cool

Children's author readings: basically free babysitting.

For my third day (in a row, might I mention), I managed to finagle an invitation to go along with my school’s Spanish/literature teachers and about 90 students on Monday morning. There was no real reason for me to go, honestly, other than that I thought it would be fun and it was a chance to hang out with my awesome kids outside of school. Again, this field trip just reminded me the difference between Colombian and American teenagers — the kids could not have been more polite, well-behaved, orderly and (almost all) on time. The morning was a bit of a whirlwind, racing from an exhibit to the aforementioned art pavilion (rather less crowded this time, although the kids obviously still made a beeline right for the Harry Potter and Hunger Games stuff. Because they’re smart) to a somewhat underwhelming author’s talk, where the kids did their best not to fall asleep or look at all their purchases.

someday I swear I'm going to learn Portuguese

So, uh, this wood didn't come from the Amazon, did it?

One of the other teachers and I also stopped by the Invited Country of Honor pavilion — each year, another country is specially invited to showcase its literature, art and culture, with its own pavilion and various events. This year, the country was Brazil, and honestly, it was pretty disappointing, especially considering the amazing range of cultures and artists in Brazil. I’m not sure whether it was the fault of the organizers or the vendors, but where the other book pavilions were brightly-lit, jam-packed mosh pits of literature, the Brazil pavilion was open, dark and had a surprisingly small number of books. The design of the space was gorgeous, with all these three-foot-tall letters made of wood and beautiful photographs hanging from the ceiling, but it looked more like a museum exhibit than a celebration of literature. All I’m saying is, when I am promised books, I expect books, dammit.

In the end, though, there were more than enough of those to go around. Now I just have to figure out how I’m going to fit them into my suitcase, come December.

In the meantime, the final tally, for those of you who are math people:

Visits to book fair: 3

Books purchased: 4, plus one notebook. This demonstrates highly impressive willpower on my part, since I usually find all notebooks utterly irresistible. I think I like the idea that someday I will fill up all those pages. Even though I won’t.

Cups of mango with lime, salt and pepper consumed: 2

Discussions held in Spanish about the works of David Foster Wallace: 1

Books accidentally knocked over: 2. Also maybe a new record low for me.

Umbrellas forgotten: 1

Plus a few more photos, each worth 1000 words:

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The Bogotálogo: My Personal Guide to Bogotá Spanish

Aside

On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up this absolutely awesome book at an author’s event last week (which, incidentally, was held at the most insanely nice private school here in Bogotá — the library looked like Colombian Hogwarts or something). It’s called Bogotálogo: Usos, Desusos y Abusos del Español Hablado en Bogotá (Uses, Disuses and Abuses of the Spanish Spoken in Bogotá), and it is HILARIOUS. It’s a really comprehensive, beautifully designed guide to all kinds of Bogotá slang, from the traditional to the very dirty, filled with vintage photos of people and places in Bogotá from the early 20th century. The author, Andrés Ospina, has worked for a while in radio here in Bogotá, and he’s incredibly witty, which clearly shows through the often-sarcastic definitions he provides for words and phrases (in the front of my book, he wrote “A little piece of my humble hometown. I’m sure it will help to worsen or ruin your Spanish.” What a guy!).

Personally, despite his insistence, I’m pretty sure it’s going to help my Colombian Spanish a hell of a lot. It’s already been a huge hit with the other teachers at school — the other day, we locked the students out of the teachers’ room and spent an hour reading the definitions to each other, and they’ve been quick to add words or phrases they insist are missing (this is how I learned how to say “spooning” in Spanish! Which will be endlessly useful, I’m sure). In any case, it’s worth a look, especially for anyone else in Colombia, or anyone with some interest in Spanish linguistics.

Here’s the link to the site, which lists most of the definitions (in Spanish, of course. Sorry, monolingual friends!). Enjoy!