Stranger in a Strange Land: Visiting the Desert of La Guajira

Featured

Last week was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, here in Colombia (and across the entire region). It is, in some ways, the Latin American version of Thanksgiving weekend: airline prices skyrocket, major cities clear out and everyone tries to finagle an extra day or two of vacation. Granted, there’s less turkey and more church involved, but the analogy still stands.

Since we were able to take the whole week off, four of my friends and I headed north — as far north as one can go and still be on the continent, as a matter of fact. We went to explore the Guajira peninsula: that odd little finger of land that juts out of northern Colombia into the Caribbean. The Guajira is a strange, remote place: largely cut off from the rest of the country, it gets most of its supplies from over the Venezuelan border, yet it’s also the epicenter of Colombia’s booming natural gas and coal extractive industries. Essentially the whole peninsula is desert, with the dusty, palm-covered hills of the Cesar department and low Guajira giving way to endless plains of sun-cracked dirt broken by figures that could be either mountains or mirages. It’s one of the best places in the country for kitesurfing, and one of the worst in terms of economic opportunity. The department brings in tens of millions of dollars to Colombia through natural gas and coal imports, and most of the residents never finish high school — in reality, many children in the most remote rural parts of the region hardly go to school at all. Even in Cabo de la Vela, one of the most “developed” towns with a relatively strong tourism industry, the children of the family running the home where we stayed struggled with basic knowledge (addition, subtraction, the letters of the alphabet) that their city-educated peers learned long ago. And school is a luxury right now — the recent political upheaval in Venezuela as well as tensions along the border have cut off many of the supply routes, causing a severe hunger crisis in a place surrounded by some of the country’s most bountiful fishing areas. La Guajira is a study in contrasts, a place of startling beauty and paralyzing lack of opportunities.

left or right or straight

Don’t take a wrong turn.

I’ll have more to say about the stunning aesthetic appeal of La Guajira (because it does have it in spades) later: the jewel-tone ocean that gives the famous “Seven Colors” of San Andrés Island a run for their money, the way the desert sprawls out in all directions like an optical illusion, the silent isolation of South America’s northernmost point of Punta Gallinas, the way the stars look during an eclipse at the end (or beginning) of the continent, the absurdly enormous and delicious lobster, the handmade hammocks, the bleached Dunes of Taroa, the mind-blowing sunsets. There is a lot to say, about a lot of things, and I feel lucky to have seen them, but right now, with impressions still fresh in my mind, what I remember most is an acute sense of feeling like an intruder.

It’s not to say that people weren’t friendly and kind, or that we didn’t feel welcome there. The desert itself is inherently unwelcoming — it’s designed to defeat and turn away everything that doesn’t have the strength to survive there, and humans are certainly not high on that list. And yet, humans do survive, and thrive, there. La Guajira is home to the indigenous Wayuu community, one of Colombia’s largest and most distinctive indigenous groups, accounting for almost half of the department’s population (there is a very significant percentage of Wayuu people on the Venezuelan side of the peninsula as well, especially in the city of Maracaibo). The community has a long history of resilience in the face of both the unforgiving desert and equally deadly invading groups — they were never formally subjugated by the Spanish conquistadores, and in the modern era have won guarantees from the Colombian government that allow them to continue practicing their traditions and exercising their traditional justice system within their territory.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

A house on a hill, or as close as it gets out here.

And it is their territory. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been to Venezuela, or don’t know the arid plains of northwestern Colombia very well, but it felt like very much a different country up there. Granted, Colombia has such cultural and geographic diversity that it does often feel like a number of small nations all crammed together around a few mountain ranges, but this was different. Being in Guajira felt like stepping into a different space entirely, and one that I wasn’t sure wanted me in it.

During the drive from Cabo de la Vela to Punta Gallinas, there are notorious “roadblocks,” where Wayuu children (or sometimes even adults) will string a rope or wire across the road in front of their homes, demanding candy or money from drivers in exchange for letting them pass. It’s easy to get frustrated with this system, especially when you hit the tenth one in half an hour, but looking around at the barren desert surrounding these houses, the few skinny goats munching on cacti in front of the one-room homes, the children living hard miles away from the closest school or clinic, it’s hard to stay frustrated. Our guide, a native of the region, convinced most of the children to drop their obstacles without giving them anything, but as time went on we started to feel worse about it. Sure, it’s a system that perpetuates handouts, and I’m sure it would cause an aneurysm among libertarians and those who espouse that “pulling up by the bootstraps” bullshit, but there’s no doubt that those families can use those 1,000 pesos far more than we can. When there are no other opportunities, you make do with what you have. Besides, we’re technically the ones driving SUVs through their front yards. They’re the people who have survived out there for their entire lives — we’re the ones who need A/C and liters of water just to make it through a day in the desert. They’ve taken on the desert, and they’ve won.

ouch

A cactus fence is as effective a way of keeping people out as I’ve ever seen.

My friends laughed at me when I described the stops as tollbooths, but in some ways I don’t think the description is so wrong. You pay a toll to provide for the general upkeep of the roads and infrastructure you use — why shouldn’t we pay a toll for invading someone else’s land? Just because the Spanish (or English, or Portuguese, or your own personal favorite colonizers) never bothered doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If the government can’t find a way to reinvest some of the exorbitant amounts of money it pulls out of the Guajira, what’s so wrong with the people asking visitors and tourists to help invest in the upkeep of the region? It’s the same as any tourism-based economic exchange — it’s just a hell of a lot more direct. Maybe the idea of paying people directly for the privilege of being on their land makes some folks more uncomfortable than paying people to provide food or transport services, but I kind of fail to see exactly what’s so bad about it.

pay up, gringo

One of the “tollbooths,” seen through the window of our car.

La Guajira is not a popular tourist destination for a reason (several reasons, in fact). It’s brutally hot, intensely dry, requires a serious commitment to waking up before 5 a.m. on a consistent basis, offers few choices in terms of meal options, has more hammocks than beds and doesn’t have anything remotely close to a five-star hotel. If you try to drive through the desert without a guide, you’ll be lost in minutes — or worse, kidnapped by someone along the way, something that happens with a borderline alarming frequency. It is also brutally beautiful, geographically fascinating, quiet in a way that most places will never achieve and home to a unique culture that has found a way to make peace with its unforgiving surroundings.

I’m deeply appreciative that I was lucky enough to see this part of the country and the world, but I’m also not sure how I feel about it as a tourist destination, and part of me is glad that it is still so underdeveloped in terms of tourism. Maybe it’s not so wrong to let the land belong to the people it actually belongs to, and to respect the idea that, just because something is there, doesn’t mean we need to take a photo of it. Sometimes it’s enough just knowing that it’s there, and that it doesn’t need us in order to continue as it has been. If a cactus falls in the desert, nobody there cares what I think about it, and that’s probably the way it should be.

 

camera settings are hard

Staring into the sun at Cabo de la Vela.

zooming clouds

This is actually exactly what it looks like. The clouds are unreal.

pilon de viento

You can’t tell from this pretty photo how insanely windy it is up here.

soooo winddyyyy

The Pilón de Azucar – or, Wind Tunnel Mountain, as I know it.

sugar sunset

Sunset at the Pilón de Azucar – our first Guajira sunset.

so lost

Where do the roads go? Good thing nobody is asking me.

bleach trees

Everything is sunbleached and washed out up here.

chicken boat

Waiting for high tide at Punta Gallinas.

chicken fence

Sunset at the top of the continent.

no photoshop necessary

It’s so pretty up here I don’t even have to retouch my photos.

tornado sky

Night comes down over South America.

Advertisements

15 Free Things to Do in Bogotá

Featured

Bogotá and its price points tend to get a bad rap. This is a very valid point when you consider that the average monthly salary in the city as of 2013 was just over 1 million pesos (about $500 at the current exchange rate), and that it has the biggest inequality gap of any city in Colombia, with Estrato 6 (the wealthiest economic level) making 4.8 million pesos per month on average, nearly 14 times the average income of about 350,000 pesos for people in Estrato 1 (the poorest level). Like in most growing cities, rents are skyrocketing in the most popular neighborhoods, and the prices of many goods are slowly creeping up as well. It’s a familiar refrain we hear in major cities impacted by gentrification — the out with the old, in with the new mindset is leaving many people behind, and there seems to be little effort to stop its momentum.

With so much recent development and increased tourism and business coming into the city, many new restaurants, cafes and bars are aiming for the nouveau riche and foreign crowds, with few $4 lunch spots to be found — or so they think. In reality, there are plenty of places in the city that won’t burn a hole straight through your wallet. Sure, if you spend all your time in the Zona Rosa and Usaquén, dropping 8,000 pesos on a beer or 20,000 just to get into a club, then yes, your bank account will start to feel it pretty quickly. But that’s what we in the business [ed. I am not actually in any such business] like to call selection bias. There are plenty of places offering set lunches for 6,000, your standard almuerzo ejecutivo price. Some of them even have veggie options! My favorite mango biche dude sells cups packed with tasty mango for just 1,000 (about 50 cents, for those of you keeping score at home), and the bar where my friend and I befriended the bartenders last year has always kept the price around 2,000 per bottle (or sometimes zero, if the manager wasn’t around).

Like any city, there are plenty of places that will be only too happy to take your money, especially your fancy foreign money, but that doesn’t define the city (there are so many other things to love, after all!). There are just as many places that will offer you a deal, drop the price if your friend buys one too, or give you a discount if you just show up enough times. And then, there are the spots and experiences that won’t cost you a peso. They’re not always what you’ll see when you open up your guidebook, but for residents, they retain their luster much longer than any swanky club. Here are a few of my favorite free (or very cheap) activities and places in Bogotá.

  1. Parque Simón Bolívar – The outdoorsy heart of Bogotá, this park has basically everything you could need to be happy: a lake, a swimming center, a giant sports complex, a space for concerts, a world-class library, a botanic garden, bike paths, plenty of trees and a temperature that somehow always seems to be a few degrees warmer than the rest of the city (I may be imagining this last one, but it’s how it feels). The park hosts events year-round, from the al Parque concert series to street theater shows to August’s Festival del Verano, which alone contains a dizzying number of different events and inspires the appearance of more kites than I’ve ever seen before in my life. Whenever I want to escape for a few hours from the towering spires of concrete and the sounds of jackhammers outside my window, this is the happy place where I come.

    the sky doesn't always look like this

    The Botanic Garden in Parque Bolívar.

  2. Concerts Al Parque – One of my very favorite things that Bogotá offers is this series of free concerts, which take place at different set times throughout the year. Staged in several of the city’s biggest parks and outdoor spaces, the concerts are completely free (though they come with a VERY up-close-and-personal patdown courtesy of security staff, so beware if you have any qualms about being groped by a stranger) and cover a broad range of genres, from opera to hip-hop. The three-day Rock al Parque, which takes place in late June or early July, is the biggest free outdoor rock concert in South America, while September’s Jazz al Parque is set in an immaculate park that used to be a polo ground, with grass that personally begs me to bring a picnic and settle down for a few hours of free tunes.
  3. Ciclovía“Bogotá no tiene mar, pero tiene Ciclovía” (Bogotá doesn’t have the ocean, but it has Ciclovía). This phrase is sort of a joke amongst rolos, but the truth is that nobody actually seems that upset about the tradeoff. The pride and joy of the city, Sunday (and holiday) Ciclovía is, hands down, one of the greatest treats Bogotá has to offer. You can’t really get to know this town until you stroll one of the main streets when it’s packed with bikers, rollerbladers, skate punks, kids on tricycles, dogs lounging in baskets or trotting alongside their owners, juice vendors, roadside bike repairmen and just about everything else. All you need to enjoy Ciclovía is a pair of shoes, some water and a serious appreciation for the best people-watching in central Colombia.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

  4. Street performers – Sure, there’s plenty of excellent indoor theater staged throughout the year here, but there are great displays of talent in the middle of major streets, too. I personally have a pretty strong aversion to mimes (how am I expected to trust someone who willingly chooses to make alarming noises instead of speaking?!) so there are some spots I steer well clear of, but I’ve still seen gymnasts, fire jugglers, unicyclists, dancers and more than enough musicians (some significantly more talented than others) offering shows in the middle of intersections or sidewalks. Lots of famous folks started out busking or playing in subway stations, so who’s to say the next Liliana Saumet isn’t out there singing on a Bogotá bus right now?
  5. Free museums – Bogotá outdoes itself when it comes to providing access to art, free of charge. Many of the flagship national museums, including the iconic Museo Botero, the Casa de la Moneda and personal favorite the Museo Nacional (housed in a building that used to be a prison) have totally free admission (donations always welcome, of course). Others, like the Museo del Oro, do charge a small admission fee of about 3,000 pesos ($1.50) — it’s not free, but you won’t find many other museums that charge admission that’s little more than the price of bus fare.

    this room would make the Spaniards happy

    One of the rooms in Bogotá’s lovely Museo del Oro (Gold Museum).

  6. Exercise classes in Parque Nacional – A sprawling swath of green space that rolls down the side of the mountain above the Séptima just north of Candelaria, Parque Nacional is a great place for a mid-week picnic or friendly match on one of the tennis courts perched above the street. During the weekend, though, it explodes into a cacophony of steps, beats and breathing patterns, as different groups stake out space to offer free classes for a range of workout styles, from yoga to Zumba. Whether you want to dance off the beers from the night before or just find your zen space, you can do it free of charge — as long as you don’t mind a little gawking from curious passersby.
  7. Rooftop of Titan Plaza – We all know how I feel about malls, but I have to make an exception for Titan Plaza, familiarly known as “the only mall that doesn’t give Natalie a claustrophobic anxiety attack.” The best thing about Titan, though, isn’t its Forever 21, or the fact that it has a bridge connecting it directly to the TransMilenio station (although that last detail is pretty excellent). No, it’s the green space on the roof of the UFO-shaped building, which has a fountain, benches, flowers, and a great panoramic view of the city. Even though it’s adjacent to two of the biggest streets running out of the city, the height lets you feel a little more removed from all of the madness on the ground below. Plus, on weekends, the cupcake stand is open!
  8. Public art exhibits – These can sometimes be less of a planned outing than the result of an unexpected discovery, but isn’t that the best way to encounter art? During the International Theater Festival, it seems like practically every street corner holds the possibility of bursting into a spontaneous performance, but there are exhibits across the city all throughout the year as well. One of my favorites comes courtesy of the FotoMuseo, the national photography museum, which takes on the admirable task of bringing stellar photographic work to the streets and communities of Bogotá. Featuring local and international artists, these semi-annual exhibits pop up all over the place, including in libraries, galleries and even the middle of the swanky Zona T. Stumbling upon these exhibits is always a pleasant surprise, so I try to keep one eye out whenever I’m walking around (while the other eye is making sure I don’t fall into one of the gaping holes in the sidewalk).
  9. Paloquemao – One of the recommended highlights for first-time visitors to Bogotá, the Paloquemao market is a sensory attack of colors, flavors and smells (some more appealing than others). It’s where nearby farmers and flower-growers come to sell their wares and where a large portion of the city does its weekly veggie shopping. Entrance to the massive covered market is free, but you’ll be forgiven if you end up dropping a few pesos on some fresh chicken or beautiful local tomatoes.

    roots grow up now

    Hanging fruits and veggies at Paloquemao market.

  10. Chapinero mountain hike – Monserrate gets all the attention, but there are other paths to explore in the mountains looming over the east side of Bogotá. One of the best-kept secrets of these alternative routes is a path that winds up from the edge of Chapinero Alto from the low 70 streets above the Circunvular. The hike goes through the vegetation on the mountainside and offers some great views of the urban sprawl below — without any of the crowded madness of Monserrate. The only catch is that the gate at the entrance of the path is locked for the day at 10 a.m., so this walk is only for the earliest of risers.
  11. DIY graffiti tour – There are several companies and individuals that offer tailored graffiti tours to hit some of Bogotá’s best works of street art, and some of them are very knowledgeable about the pieces and their significance in a social context. However, if you’re strapped for cash or prefer to move at your own pace, there’s no reason you can’t stroll around on your own and admire the many talented artists decorating walls, facades and underpasses. There’s interesting street art in almost every corner of the city, but some of the best places to see it are the Centro/Candelaria, inside the Universidad Nacional (don’t miss Plaza Che!) and major streets like the Séptima, Avenida Boyacá, the NQS and Calles 26 and 80.
  12. Public libraries – If you judge a city by how much its population loves books, Bogotá should be at the top of the list. In addition to the International Book Fair and hundreds of used book sellers, Bogotá is home to some seriously beautiful — and seriously popular — libraries. The flagship library, the Luis Angel Arango in La Candelaria, receives millions of visitors each year, but the El Tintal (southwest of the city), El Tunal (south), Santo Domingo (north) and Virgilio Barco (central, in Parque Simón Bolívar) libraries are also all stunning architectural creations and great resources in their own rights. In fact, I’m writing this post from one of the libraries right now!

    these are important words to know, here

    The walls of an exhibit on water inside the Luis Angel Arango library.

  13. Night bike rides – In case Ciclovía hadn’t already made you abundantly aware, this is a bike-crazy city. However, the local two-wheeled fanatics don’t allow their enthusiasm to be contained within one day, which has led to the proliferation of recurring ciclopaseos throughout the city. The most popular of these is the Ciclopaseo de los Miércoles, which takes place, as the name suggests, every other Wednesday at a different, predetermined starting point. Anyone with a bike is welcome to this friendly event, which can draw anywhere between a few dozen to several hundred people, depending on the week, location and, most of all, the weather.
  14. Art shows in the García Marquez Cultural Center – The basement of the center, right next to the Juan Valdez in La Candelaria, has a constant revolving art exhibit on display for any visitors who want to wander through while sipping coffee or hiding from the rain. The theme and style vary (I’ve liked some exhibits far more than others), but the curators always choose interesting Latin American artists, and it’s certainly worth a look when you’re in the neighborhood, if you’re not museum-ed out by then. The Center itself is also free and has a solid calendar of public events as well.
  15. La Calera lookout – Perched right above Bogotá, the town of La Calera and its eponymous lookout spot might have the best view in the whole city. From this corner of the road, it’s possible to see the entire expanse of the metropolis stretching away across the sábana — and, unlike Monserrate, it’s safe to be up here at night. In fact, this is a very popular nightlife spot, for couples and families that come to sip canelazo and enjoy the view, as well as for the partiers on board the chivas rumberas that chug up the hill carrying those aboard to one of La Calera’s late-night discotecas. It’s another perspective entirely on the city, and as close to a bird’s-eye view as one can get without actually leaving the ground. The lookout itself is free, but unless you’ve got a solid set of lungs, you’ll probably want to take the bus up from the Séptima (fares to the lookout are less than 2,000 pesos).

I’m sure there are plenty more of awesome free things that I’ve left off the list, but I’ve either yet to discover them, or I just want to keep them all to myself. If you know of any worthy additions, though, feel free to add your suggestions — I’m always on the lookout for more ways to enjoy this city without incurring any more infuriating Bank of America ATM fees!

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.

Queremos Paz

IMG_8127

This past Tuesday, April 9th, was an important day here in Colombia. It was the 65th anniversary of the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, which set off the riots known as the Bogotazo, which killed between 3,000-5,000 people and destroyed much of downtown Bogotá in just 10 hours. That riot and the ensuing instability led to widespread violence across the country and set the stage for the beginning of the civil conflict that still exists today.

As if that weren’t enough, Tuesday was also the Day of Victims, created by the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which was created to facilitate the process of remittances and returning land to the millions of internally displaced refugees across the country. Of course, this law has yet to actually accomplish much, but some recognition is better than none, right? Across the country, people commemorated this day in different ways — and here in Bogotá, almost a million people marched to the city center to demonstrate their support for peace (here’s an article in English for you gringos). Both the president and the mayor of Bogotá participated in the march, as well as several other famous Colombians and a whole lot of people from a whole lot of different places on the political spectrum. No matter your feelings about the politics of the situation (and, as always, there are more than enough feelings to go around), it was an impressive show of citizen participation and expression.

Now, people have different definitions of what peace means, and how they go about supporting it. For some, it means getting on board with the ideals of the talks currently taking place in Havana between representatives of the Colombian government and guerrilla groups. Others may believe in the end more than the means, or take action on a more local scale. Yet others, like those who criticized the march as apologizing for or even supporting the FARC rebels, may believe that the road to peace does not lie through these kinds of negotiations. And for others still, it is less political and more personal — a goal that every Colombian can work toward in his or her private life.

Ending a war is not like winning a video game — you don’t just beat the last level, save the princess and suddenly it’s all over. Not in the DRC, not in Syria, and not in a country ravaged by decades of civil conflict. These things take time, and effort, and extraordinary amounts of courage. They take forgiveness — for the fighters who may hope to reintegrate back into civil society, for the military and state police apparatus that have committed serious crimes in the name of winning the war, for the perpetrators of violence that has driven millions of people from their land and family homes. These things are not easy. These things are beyond the capacity of many people, and hard for many of us to even imagine. I’ve never lost a family member to drug violence, answered the phone to hear a voice on the other end tell me my father’s been kidnapped, driven around in an armored car full of bodyguards because it’s the only way to feel safe, or wondered whether today is the day I’ll be in the wrong place when the newest bomb goes off. Most people here have grown up or lived under the shadow of violence. It’s always been there, just like the mountains.

The shadow is beginning to fade. But it won’t disappear on its own. Chasing away the darkness requires positive actions. It requires hope. It requires faith. It requires people who truly believe in the potential of peace, and who are willing to work toward that, who are willing to cooperate and help one another move through and past this painful history. It requires people with great strength of character and the ability to remain positive through dark times. It requires, in other words, Colombians.

I wasn’t born here. I’m not Colombian by birth, and I have no right to claim any sense of belonging to this process. I recognize that. This situation, both the positive and the negative, is their birthright, not mine. But I live here, I love it here, and I care deeply about the people I know here. They deserve this. They deserve to wake up and go to work in horrible traffic and arrive home at night to see their family together and safe. They deserve to work in good jobs without worrying that they may be jeopardizing people they love. They deserve to travel through their gorgeous country without feeling threatened or avoiding certain regions altogether. They deserve their land back. They deserve their livelihoods back. They deserve to be seen as more than narcos. They deserve to be treated with the same dignity and afforded the same opportunities granted to citizens of other countries, not interrogated at every border and repeatedly denied visas based only on their nationality. They deserve the opportunity to make their country what everyone believes it can be, to rise to their potential instead of being held back by jungles filled with men with guns and destructive wars on drugs inflicted on them by foreign powers. They deserve their real birthright: not the one dripping with blood money and long-held grudges, but the one that moves to the rhythm of salsa and cumbia and bursts with the colors and joy of the country’s natural beauty.

They deserve peace. Merecen la paz. Que la llegue.

Top Five Travel Clothes

Unless (maybe even if) you’re a ridiculously intense back-to-basics backpacker, there are special things that go with you when you travel. It could be a simple charm, a lucky water bottle, even a special pair of socks. Whatever it is, you can be sure never to board a plane without it.

Clothes and/or accessories are a special point of interest when traveling, mostly because of the space issue. We have a limited amount of real estate in which to stuff everything we need for a given amount of time, so we have to be as efficient as possible about maximizing the potential use of everything we bring. I’m notoriously not a heels girl to begin with, and they almost never make an appearance in any of my pieces of luggage, because I recognize that the odds I’ll wear them more than once on any given trip is just south of zero. At this point, I’ve done enough gallivanting around the world for various lengths of time that I have a pretty strong sense of which things I’ll need (jeans, sneakers, scarves) and which things I’ll almost immediately regret bringing along (more than one swimsuit, necklaces, sweaters).

Still, I have a few things that have made it through years and countless TSA searches with me — things that I refuse to throw away or leave behind, regardless of how many holes they spring. We’ve been through so much together, it would be like a breakup to get rid of them at this point. I’m sure that even when they’ve deteriorated to the point that wearing them would cause my friends to be embarrassed to be seen in public with me, I’ll find a nice cozy box or corner of my closet in which to stash them, so I can keep them for the memories, even after they’ve long outlived their initial use.

The top five things that almost never leave my side (or my suitcase), barring serious climate-related factors:

1. This disgusting ratty grey jacket. I bought this jacket for $10 at the Urban Outfitters basement in Harvard Square, back when it was cheap and actually worth a visit, sometime around my sophomore or junior year of high school. Yes, high school. I’ve had this jacket for going on eight years now, and it shows: there is about a 1:1 ratio of holes to fabric at this point. I still wear it almost every day. This jacket has lived with me through the dramatic end of high school, survived all of my college escapades, protected me through six months in Buenos Aires, visited many of the cities on the Eastern Seaboard, climbed a volcano in Ecuador and is still going strong here with me in Colombia. I’ve known this jacket longer than I’ve known some of my friends, and I refuse to get rid of it because I love it more than almost any other article of clothing I own. Plus it makes me look really poor, so nobody wants to rob me, which is always an advantage when strolling around major cities with an upsettingly expensive camera stashed in my bag.

sorry, mom and dad. but I was 21!

The jacket, keeping college me warm whilst downing a beer on an unseasonably chilly Wrigley Field rooftop. Chicago, May 2010.

2. This soft, reversible printed scarf. I’ll admit to being a bit of a scarf magpie. Scarves, along with earrings, are one of my great travel weaknesses — they’re so pretty, so light, so cheap, so easy to pack, and always useful when living in temperate climates (aka my entire life). I stumbled across this lovely creation in a market in Tel Aviv/Jaffa — not exactly ideal scarf weather there, but I was headed back to chilly Boston just a few days later, and I couldn’t imagine a comfier way to arrive than snuggled up in this soft piece of fabric. As the best scarves do, it unrolls to practically the size of a blanket, or at least a very functional shawl, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve curled up in it to get through a flight, road trip or class in a particularly cold lecture hall. Since accompanying me back from Israel, my scarf has visited four separate continents, making appearances in France, Argentina, New Zealand, Canada, Ecuador, most of the northeast U.S. (plus Chicago), and is in fairly heavy rotation here in scarf-friendly Bogotá. In a robbery, I’d probably fight harder to protect this scarf than my wallet. Wallets can be replaced — four continents of memories can’t.

man, my forehead looks huge now

My scarf (and the rest of me, pre-bangs) reveling in the view from the deck of the Eiffel Tower. France, January 2009.

3. This pair of grey H&M Sqin skinny jeans. Wayyyyy back at the beginning of college, when skinny jeans were still a trend as opposed to a reality of daily life, I was pretty anti-skinnies. I’m not exactly model-thin, and the idea of wearing something that highlighted that aspect of my figure wasn’t my favorite idea. Still, I was wearing a lot of boots and long sweaters through the Chicago falls and winters, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to buy one pair of pants that I didn’t have to violently stuff into my boots. Hence a pilgrimage to H&M, that great source of cheap, trendy and occasionally baffling articles of clothing, and a spontaneous decision to invest in a pair of comfy light grey skinny jeans — just to have something in another color, I told myself at the time.

this brings back some really uncomfortable memories

Getting the patdown from correctional officers in an old prison in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. I’m not even safe from the long arm of the law at the end of the world. Argentina, May 2009.

By now, these pants have survived two transatlantic trips (France and Israel), made it through several different corners of Argentina, stuck it out through one Boston and three Chicago winters (and a spot of Canada snow in May) and, though they’re a bit faded by now, they still cover all the necessary parts of me. They’re sturdy, comfortable, go with everything and I don’t give a damn about getting them dirty because I paid about $30 for them almost five years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth out of them.

4. This basic black Target peacoat. Oh, Target. Questionable business ethics and political affiliations, dependably cheap wares. What ever are we to do with you?

One thing we can do is wear out your merchandise until it is at the point of disintegration — which is exactly what I’ve done with this coat. I acquired it sometime around the first year of college, undoubtedly while on a quest for something completely different, because that’s how Target runs work. Since then, it’s been my near-constant companion when I just don’t feel like rocking my normal green peacoat, or when going out — the rationale being that it’s far too average and unappealing for anyone to steal. It’s not like this is a North Face, people.

Despite its simple appearance, it’s still a warm coat that matches with everything and is small enough to travel fairly light, to such far-ranging places as Argentina, New Zealand, Israel, Colombia and a fair percentage of the bars in Chicago and Boston. Almost six years later, we’re still together — a bit frayed at the edges, for sure, but it’s nothing a little needle and thread can’t repair.

it survived the helicopter ride up here, too

Atop a mountain in Fiordland National Park on the South Island of New Zealand. Not bad for a cheap Target peacoat! Te Anau, April 2011.

ugh, I promise to never make this face ever again

Probably the most obnoxious photo of me on this site. Just keeping my ego in check. Israel, December 2009, practicing my best Candy Vanna White pose.

5. This totally awesome, magic, beat-up red leather bag. For the mere price of $2, I rescued this bag from its sad fate languishing in the basement floor of a Cambridge, MA thrift store almost seven years ago, and we’ve been near-inseparable ever since. I get more compliments and people inquiring about the provenance of this unlabeled, fraying leather bag than any other bag I own, and with good reason: It’s got character. And you can’t buy that, ladies and gentlemen.

Plus, it sure has a lot of stories/secrets to tell. This bag has accompanied me through nearly all of my travels in the continental U.S., and has made appearances in Canada, Israel, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Canada and all across Colombia. It has been known to hold water bottles (filled with both water and other substances), shirts, shoes, umbrellas, cameras, makeup, DVDs, four different phones, gloves and/or other winter accessories, snacks, jewelry, baseball hats, Ziploc bags of cereal, iPods, notebooks, regular books, concert tickets, at least 100 different pens, various forms of currency, chopsticks, nail polish, lollipops, sunglasses and, on at least one occasion, a flashlight. My goal is to fit either an entire outfit or a small animal in it sometime before the end of our functional time together.

It’s funny to look at this list and realize that the things that last the longest, and that become the most significant to us, are rarely the things on which we spend the most money. None of these items cost more than $35 — most were less than $20. And yet here we are — five, six, eight years later — still together. I have a stronger emotional investment in most of these items than any of the (few) fancy shoes or dresses in my closet, and that’s not a coincidence. The things we love, like the people we care about most, are the ones that share experiences with us, and remain with us through the endless security lines, the bad restaurants, and the moments around the globe that change our lives. These are the things we remember.

These are mine. What are yours?