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!
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.
People here are really into holidays. As in, we celebrate something pretty much every week — holidays I never even knew existed in a formal sense, like Teacher’s Day, Children’s Day, International Water Day, and so on. Basically every holiday is an excuse for us to have an iza bandera (this translates more or less to “flag-raising” but is essentially a school-wide assembly. There is no actual raising of any flags) and for all the kids and teachers to miss class for an hour or two. I typically use it as an opportunity to tan my arms in the courtyard and whisper threatening things at 10th-graders who are hitting each other instead of paying attention.
However, some holidays merit even more than just an assembly with various patriotic songs and people talking. When they get serious about celebrations here, they go all out. A recent example at school — probably the best one so far — was Día del Idioma (Language Day, more or less). Día del Idioma is celebrated throughout the Spanish-speaking world as a day to recognize the global importance of the Spanish language, and has been a national holiday here in Colombia since 1938. It officially falls on April 23rd, as an homage to “Don Quixote” author Miguel de Cervantes, one of the most important writers in the history of Spanish literature, who died on that day in 1616. Even though the holiday has an official date, all of the schools where we volunteers are working seemed to celebrate it on different days. Ours was April 25th, and boy, was it a party.
Día del Idioma, although it seems like it should just be people talking about how awesome Spanish is all day (which would’ve been fine with me, too), turned out to be really more of a celebration of Colombian culture in general, or at least that’s how it played out here. Classes were suspended for essentially the entire day, since the festivities took up almost six hours. Every classroom was decorated according to some kind of theme — a different geographic region of the country, different kinds of food, different cultural myths, literature, and so on. Pretty much anything that contributes to culture had its own space, and some of the students from that class did a presentation on their specific topic. The rest of the students rotated around the school in groups, acting as the audience for the presentations.
It was pretty cute watching the students take a turn teaching each other, and we teachers got to more or less take a back seat for the day and just hang out with the kids and see the results of all their hard work. This was especially nice for the Spanish teachers, who had been driving themselves pretty much crazy with preparations during the week before Día del Idioma — I was legitimately concerned about the relative sanity of a few of them.
In the end, though, everything seemed to go fairly smoothly. The kids had a great time, all of the classrooms looked great, it miraculously didn’t rain for the whole six hours — plus, I got some great pictures.
It’s Mothers’ Day here in Colombia, and as you might imagine in a country that loves sentimentality and flowers as much as they do here, it is MADNESS. The malls and shopping centers have been packed all weekend, and I’m genuinely concerned about the sanity of the people working at my local flower stand.
I’m going to Skype with my own biological mother later, but these flowers are for Cristina, my host mother here. Because host moms are moms, too, you know!
So today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day — known here in Colombia as Día de la Mujer. As you may or may not know, the holiday started back at the beginning of the 20th century, as a sort of combination of the socialist labor rights and women’s rights movements. Following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and ongoing strikes and protests by Russian women during the 19-teens, the international community finally began to pay marginally more attention to women’s demands for equality. Since the end of WWI, International Women’s Day has spread across the globe, and is now an official holiday in more than 25 countries, and celebrated unofficially in many others, including Colombia.
Here, Día de la Mujer is kind of a like a combination of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. Women receive gifts like candy, flowers and small stuffed animals — or, in the case of one of my fellow teachers, a terrifying 8-inch-tall pen shaped like a rabbit. Walking around town today was pretty charming, because practically every female person over the age of about 10 is carrying at least two flowers and probably some other kind of gift. It’s an especially great day to be a female teacher, with all the kids running around school giving teachers candy, flowers, cards and other presents — kind of like reverse Halloween for grownup ladies. I think I collected like ten candy bars over the course of the day (needless to say, most of them didn’t make it to tonight intact), as well as some very lovely flowers and a personalized card from one of my seventh-graders (who even spelled my name right! A miracle!).