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

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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.

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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.

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…

Skydiving

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?

We Need to Talk About Coke

You had to know this conversation was coming eventually. Yes, I spend a lot of time talking about how Colombia isn’t the country it was 20 or even 10 years ago, how there’s so so SO much more to this amazing place than “machine guns and murders,” as my father so aptly put it in a recent conversation about how apparently nobody we know has seen any news since 1985. Colombia is no longer Pablo Escobar’s Colombia, but it’s also not paradise, despite what the tourism ads tell you. As much as I’ve fallen in love with this place, my love isn’t blind: this is still very much a country at war, and it’s a war that extends far beyond the geographic borders. It’s a war that probably touches you.

If you know anything about anything, you’re aware that Colombia has been mired in a civil conflict for decades. A quick and dirty primer for those of you who failed Endless Civil Wars in Latin America 201: The modern conflict began in 1948, with a decade-long political civil war known as La Violencia, which killed more than 300,000 people, most of them farmers or rural residents. In the meantime, the number of people affiliated with the Communist party had been slowly growing since the years following WWI; by the early 1960s, many rural regions had formed their own leagues based on communist principles, calling for increased rights to land ownership, services and access to resources that were controlled by the land-owning class. Because god forbid the threat of Communism be allowed to flourish near our own continent, the U.S. of course had to get involved: in 1962, our proud nation created a paramilitary intervention, known as “Plan Lazo,” which trained and encouraged the Colombian military (as well as the paramilitary civil defense groups they created, which of course don’t conveniently vanish when the plan ends) to attack these leagues and their adjacent communities, many of whom were generally unarmed. Such good neighbors, we are. In response to a 1964 raid on a small town, when 16,000 U.S.-sponsored Colombian troops attacked a group of 1000 villagers, a group of 48 men who had been involved in the battle created the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known as the FARC by their nearest and dearest friends, and everyone else.

The group quickly grew to include hundreds of guerrillas, with the ostensible purpose of defending their territory and land from these imposed, colonialist attacks. However, somewhere along the way (sometime in the early ’80s, to be more precise), the FARC lost most of their revolutionary political ideals, and turned into something closer to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Cocaína. Cocaine is a hell of a drug fast way to make a profit, and when you’re spending all your time hiding in the jungles and fighting the paramilitares/army/police/idiot lost tourists/capybaras/anyone who crosses your path, you need all the fast money you can get. Current statistics estimate that the FARC brings in anywhere from $60 to $100 million dollars annually just from taxing the drug trade, so it’s no surprise that the guerrilla groups saw that they could leverage this system to their advantage, nor that they turned rural farms with little oversight into a production system for their new export, therefore placing the farmers directly into the lose-lose middle of this impossible situation: work with the FARC, and stand a chance of losing their farms or being sent to jail under the latest anti-drug initiative; refuse to work with the FARC, and stand a chance of losing their lives. As usual, the little guy is the one who gets screwed.

But you know what, kids? Most of us, even unwilling journalism majors, have learned a little bit about economics by this point in our lives. We certainly understand the capitalist holy grail of supply and demand — we live it. So if the supply is here, hiding in the overgrown corners of jungle-bordered Colombia, shielding themselves from the occasional pesticide-laced flyover or big military initiative — then where is the demand?

Take a look around you, dear friends and countrymen (and, I suppose, some of you non-countryfolk). Because that’s where it is. Colombia may be one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine, but the U.S. is by far the biggest consumer. It’s no accident that in the last few years, northern Mexico has turned into a roiling nightmare of narcotraficantes and horrific cartel-sanctioned violence — someone has to protect that coke and make sure it’s getting safely to the noses of rich kids in American cities.

I have friends (not good friends, obviously) back at home who do or at least have done cocaine. I’ve seen friends or acquaintances snorting that stuff up their noses, and while it never seems like the time to give them a lecture about supporting traffickers and essentially signing off on death, both in other countries and in the U.S., being here by the source makes this just so much clearer. I see the poorest neighborhoods of Bogotá, perched up on the hills and without electricity or running water, filled with people who fled the conflict in their native towns, trying to salvage at least their lives and families, if nothing else. I teach kids who lost family members in the ’80s and early ’90s, the unstable era when Bogotá was a city filled with narcos and bombs, when Medellín was the murder capital of the world. I sense the hope, the need to break free of this past, this narrative of Colombia as eternal battleground. The scars here are still so, so visible, and no amount of smiles or makeup or plastic surgery, that Colombian specialty, can cover them up.

Maybe you can’t see them from where you are. Maybe you think it’s not you perpetuating this cycle of violence and exploitation. Maybe you just really don’t care where your toys come from, like people who buy diamond engagement rings without investigating the history of those sparkling gems. If you do care, though — if you give a shit about people, about the ability of human beings to live their lives without the risk of being killed or injured or forced to leave their entire livelihoods behind to flee from an unsafe situation to a far-away city or country — then think. Think about the implications of your actions, think about what these habits say about you or your friends as human beings, think about what you can do to distance yourself from the kind of people who, through their action or inaction, implicitly condone drug violence and the exploitation of thousands of innocent people.

At the least, think before you inhale.

Being Responsible Is Overrated (But Necessary)

Aside

Back around May or June, when I seriously began thinking about the possibility of trying to stay here for another year, I gave myself an arbitrary deadline of September to begin looking for jobs. It’s not like anyone here is going to be hiring four months ahead, but it at least gave me a concrete time to start scoping out potential employers, getting in touch with various people and organizations and engaging in that dreaded activity, networking.

Well, it’s September now. Time to act like a responsible adult and start begging people to hire me and/or sponsor my visa. So…. anyone know of any good jobs or people hiring enthusiastic Americans with above-average verbal skills in Bogotá? I’m all ears.

15 Things I’ve (Almost) Forgotten About Since January

  1. What it’s like to wake up every morning and legitimately need to check the weather.
  2. The taste of bad orange juice.
  3. The concept of eye contact as a direct threat.
  4. How much I would normally be sweating this time of year.
  5. Underground public transportation systems.
  6. The existence of Wolf Blitzer. And Maureen Dowd.
  7. Established, consistent bus stops.
  8. Avocados that exist in sizes smaller than my head.
  9. How to parallel park (to be fair, I was never very good at this to begin with).
  10. The idea of standing in line for brunch.
  11. Milk that comes in cartons, or yogurt that’s closer to a solid than a liquid.
  12. Using my debit card for anything that isn’t a plane ticket.
  13. Running without feeling like my lungs are considering exploding out of my chest.
  14. Movies without subtitles.
  15. Millionaire Matchmaker (and my enduring love for it).

Show Me What an American Looks Like

This is me:

cats and i are one

…and also a cat. Of course.

I’m 5’4″, 23 1/2 years old, brown/brown. I’m totally blind without my contacts, my face gets covered with freckles when it’s sunny and I’m engaged in a lifelong battle against my eyebrows, which repeatedly attempt to annex the entire upper half of my face. I get told sometimes that I look Italian, or maybe Spanish, but my family heritage is straight-up German-Hungarian Jewish (and 1/8th mystery. That’s the fun part of me). The idea of whether or not I “looked American,” though, had never really occurred to me until I moved to Colombia, where I am told at least once a week that I don’t.

I realize, of course, that this mindset comes from a position of privilege. The U.S. is certainly not a perfect racial and ethnic melting pot of equality or “colorblindness” or whatever your chosen nomenclature for that impossible ideal may be. I’ve never been stopped in traffic for no good reason, nor had someone speak to me slowly and loudly because they assume by looking at me that English is not my first language. People don’t ask me where I’m from, or where my parents are from, and expect to hear me say the name of another country. At home, at least, I obviously do look American** enough that nobody gives my citizenship a second thought. I recognize that this is a privilege that many other citizens don’t have, and that’s a whole different and far more important battle — but it’s not the one I’m involved in right here, right now. Right here, right now, I’m trying to explain to people (and kind of to myself) why exactly I get so offended when people insist that I don’t look like an American.

Being told I don’t sound like an American is a compliment — it means my Spanish is good enough that people mistake me for a foreigner from another, less verbally-embarrassing country. Argentina, sometimes, because of the accent I picked up there, or Brazil, because I don’t sound like a native Spanish speaker. I’m more than fine with this. Not having people know right off the bat when I speak that I’m a gringa is both a testament to the fact that my Spanish isn’t filled with horrible flat vowels and overpronounced h’s, and it makes my life a bit easier in terms of not standing out or getting ripped off. Go ahead and think I’m from Portugal when I’m speaking, but once you know I’m from the States, please don’t tell me I look wrong.

My issue with this has little to do with any sort of desire to assert my American-ness all over the place. After all, I am not exactly the world’s most “hoo-rah!” patriotic Yankee. For starters, I’m from the People’s Republic of Eastern Massachusetts. I was raised on skepticism, grew up under the idealism-crushing Bush administration, have never watched NASCAR or “American Idol” and I don’t even eat burgers. But there are legitimate reasons I’m proud of where I’m from, and it will always be an inherent part of my identity. I certainly wouldn’t choose to identify otherwise unless it were for my own safety (there are some countries where it’s just better to be Canadian).

But more than the slight to my ego, it’s upsetting to me that the idea of what an American looks like is so narrowly defined as the “gringo” look: tall, white, with blond hair and blue eyes (apparently, they think we’re all Nordic). Because the thing is, very few Americans actually look like this. We (or at least I) take pride in the fact that there is no distinct American look, except for maybe wearing t-shirts all the time, and it saddens me that the entire, amazing cultural/ethnic/racial range of what an American might be is almost immediately negated when you travel to another country. You don’t look like this; therefore, you can’t possibly be this.

Obviously, people’s understanding or concept of a foreign culture they’ve never experienced is based entirely on the information available to them — or rather, the information they choose to absorb. I encountered this plenty of times last year while trying to explain to people at home that it was in fact highly unlikely that I would be kidnapped by the FARC, or listened to the tenth person in a row make the same stupid joke about drug dealers. But considering how tuned in many Colombians are to American pop culture, it’s kind of astonishing that their image of the North American is strictly limited to the gringo. Movies have their own bucket of issues with minority representation, but it’s not like every single person present in U.S. pop culture or media looks like that. The president doesn’t. Angelina Jolie doesn’t. Selena Gomez certainly doesn’t (I know, I know. I’ve been spending too much time with middle-schoolers). There are tons of high-profile Americans who don’t remotely fit into that mold — and yet, it’s still assumed here that that’s what we all look like.

I don’t think for a second that this image of the blond American gringo exists only in Colombia. It’s definitely present in a lot of countries — it’s just that I happen to be living here, so here is where I’m encountering it. There’s not much that can be done, really, to change it — when people have an image or stereotype fixed in their minds, it’s a hell of an uphill battle to change it (hi, all my parents’ friends who are still convinced I’m going to die here!). All I can do at the moment is keep looking like this, and hope that some people notice.

** for the purpose of this post, I’m using “American” to mean ” a person from the U.S.” I realize that isn’t technically accurate, and I’m sorry for the nationalcentrism, but there isn’t an English word for “estadounidense” and I refuse to write “person from the U.S.” every time because efficiency. It’s a problem, but it’s not a battle I’m prepared to take on right now. Please forward your complaints to the people in charge of the English language.

Car Bombs and the Incredible Power of Solidarity

So, today, May 15th (screw all of you with Daylight Savings hours, it’s still Tuesday here), was Día del Profesor here in Colombia — and, if I’m not mistaken, in many other countries as well. Here in Bogotá, though, the celebration was rather overshadowed by the unofficial Día de Car Bombs.

I’m not talking about offensively-named drinks, nor am I trying to make light of what is a really serious situation. There really were car bombs today. Plural. Fortunately, only one of them actually went off, but one is more than bad enough.

But let’s start at the beginning. Today marked the beginning of the official operation of the new free-trade agreement between Colombia and the U.S. I won’t even pretend that I paid enough attention in economics class to explain anything about it, but we’re all adults here, so I think we’re at least familiar with the basic idea of a free-trade agreement, in that it removes a significant number of tariffs and import/export taxes on goods between countries, thereby freeing up the possibility of a lot more movement of goods and basically screwing over most producers who aren’t giant evil corporations. In this case, a majority of U.S.-produced agricultural products (including most fruits and veggies, plus more soy and horrible genetically-engineered beef, yay!) will now come into Colombia tariff-free. This, for the people who failed Econ for Dummies (hey, I barely scraped by), means that these products will now be way cheaper in Colombian markets, making competition almost impossible for Colombia’s nearly 2 million small farmers, most of whom already live in serious rural poverty.

Of course, it’s GREAT for the U.S. economy — especially my least favorite state, Florida, which, as the closest point in the continental U.S., looks to benefit a hell of a lot from all that new movement of goods and will undoubtedly use that money to build more goddamn high-rise beachfront hotels or golf courses or something else equally awful. President Santos has sworn that it will create more than 300,000 new jobs for the Colombian economy, but Oxfam, who tend to know their stuff, predicted last year that the FTA (or TLC, as it’s rather amusingly called here) could cause those 1.8 million farmers to potentially lose more than half of their incomes, as well as negatively affecting their communities and undermining anti-FARC efforts made in poorer regions. So, yay free trade! Imposing U.S. demands and crappy products on countries across the world! Ruining the lives of small farmers so Monsanto can just move right in! Yay, destructive globalization!

Anyways, we won’t go into my feelings about free trade any further. Suffice it to say, there are some people in Colombia who agree with me about the potential issues presented by these kinds of treaties. However, the difference between me and these people is that I don’t go around expressing my feelings by blowing things — and people — up.

This morning, most of us awoke to the news that the police had discovered a car with an explosive device outside the police headquarters in the centro, near La Candelaria, in the early hours of the morning. Luckily, they discovered it in time to safely defuse it, and they apparently already caught some guy who was at least somewhat responsible. So, whew. Danger averted, right?

Not really. A little past 11 a.m., a bomb detonated in the middle of the busy intersection of Calle 74 and Avenida Caracas, one of the main carreras running north-south through the city and a primary hub and route for the public TransMilenio bus system. In fact, Calle 74 is right between Calles 72 and 76, which are both major interchange stations on the TransMilenio routes. There was obviously a ton of confusion at first about what had happened — Twitter, bless its robot heart, was, as usual in these kinds of situations, both incredibly useful and totally misdirecting. I initially found out about it from Twitter, where people were reporting a bus had blown up. There were five wounded, then ten, then 19, then two dead, and so on. All of this turned out to not quite be the truth, but as the day went on, we got closer.

We’re still piecing the whole thing together, but as it looks now, what happened was this: Whoever the attackers were (the government refuses to say anything official, but everyone is pretty sure it was the FARC), they were clearly targeting Fernando Londoño, a former justice minister under the previous Uribe administration. Why he was targeted isn’t really clear to me (or, apparently, anyone so far), but the people responsible pulled up next to his car on a motorcycle, attached the bomb to the door of his car, then zoomed away. And then it exploded.

As it happened, when the bomb detonated, Londoño’s car was right next to one of the thousands of public busetas that criss-cross all over the city, so the bus and all of its passengers were caught in the explosion as well. As of right now, the official tally is three dead (Londoño’s driver, a police bodyguard and an unidentified third person), and almost 40 injured, most of them passengers from the bus.

People here were, understandably, really shaken by the whole thing. The news began to spread around my school at about noon, and most of the teachers instantly grabbed for their phones, calling their loved ones to make sure everyone was safe. It was definitely a strange, unsettling day, but I want to try to make sure to point out the positive message here, because there is one.

Even though the image of Colombia may still be, to most outsiders, something along these lines, with random car bombs and assassination attempts happening on a daily basis, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, this was an important reminder of the reality of life in this country, that there remains an ongoing civil conflict from which all the tall buildings in Bogotá can’t shield us, and that to ignore this truth is both foolish and dangerous. But the fact that people were so shocked, so horrified, so quick to take to any and all means of communication to denounce today’s violence and express their solidarity for one another and for their country, says so much about how far this city and these people have come. This is not the Bogotá of ten or twenty years ago, where such events might not have come as a surprise. In today’s Bogotá, these things do not happen. And when they horrifyingly, shockingly do, as they did today, the whole city reaches out to one another and finds not fear, but strength.

As soon as news of the attack spread across social media, “74 con Caracas” and “londoño” shot to the top of Bogotá’s trending topics on Twitter. But what I found more interesting is that the next most popular tag across the city was “#NoAlTerrorismo” (“No To Terrorism”). As in, this shall not pass. As in, we won’t allow it. People here are shaken, but they aren’t scared. This is their city — they love this place, they’re proud of it, and they’re not going to let anyone take that away from them. And you can’t make that spirit disappear, no matter how strong your bombs might be. Some things can’t be destroyed.