GAME DAY

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A motorcyclist wearing a Colombian flag
rumbles around cars; the yellow, red and blue stripes
tear off his back like cartoon speed lines.

It is morning, which means the fog over the mountains is still dense
as is the traffic beneath it.
There are only a few hours to spare before the game.
Plastic tri-colored horns attached to flailing bodies
hang out of car windows. Dedicated lips take breaks
only to chant and howl and laugh at the thick clouds
which couldn’t dampen the mood if they tried.

A crooked, yellow grin of Colombian soccer jerseys
dangle like loose teeth in a line
over the open back of a shipping truck;
its massive wheels clanking across the worn highway.
For a moment the sun squints through
and illuminates the inside of the back of this truck.
There are benches on both sides
of which are covered in entirety
by two rows of soldiers, uniformed in camouflage.
There are four people standing, as well, in the far back
and each and every one of them
is playing one instrument or another.
Traditional salsa music–
quieted some by the highway traffic–
shakes, rattles and thumps
from accordions and maracas and drums
as their guns rest, off-duty, in their holsters.
It is a tune of celebration.
A light mist in the air is the softest of instruments.
It dampens my face as I ride my bike behind the truck.
Nearing it, I lift one palm off the handlebar
and wave.
Managing to not compromise the rhythm of the music,
they wave back.  Today, there are no teams
in this country. We are all fighting
for the same thing.

If we win or lose,
we do it together.

The Expat Pyramid (A la Freytag)

Freytag’s Pyramid is a diagram to explain the general plot structure of dramatic works such as novels, film or plays. We’d like to believe that in real life our journeys are unique. Though each experience molded by unique events and variability, there are undeniable patterns between them.

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For someone who moves out of their country to live abroad, this is no exception. As such, I made a tailored version to fit the journey of the expat, using relationship analogies:

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Let me show you what I mean…

(1.) The Move:

This period is more about the transition from the previous chapter of your life than it is about the actual place you move to. Before newlyweds really begin to enjoy one another, they must make peace with the fact that their single life is in the past now; that they must move on.

(2.) The Honeymoon Phase:

Like in a marriage, this is a period of being totally mesmerized and enamored. You notice the beauty in small details and wake up grateful every day. When I was in it, here, it didn’t matter how bad of a day I was having, I would look at Los Cerros (the mountains) off to the east and instantly feel calm, again.

(3.) The Lovers’ Quarrel:

Remember that new spouse who had the most precious nose? And you could stay awake just watching it sit there on that pretty face as it snored adorably? Well, little by little, that precious nose and adorable snore become less and less precious and adorable. You notice, now, that the pores in this nose are HUGE and that there two families of blackheads living in gated communities above each of your lover’s nostrils. One day, you stop thinking about everything that is where you live and only think about everything it isn’t. It begins to have prison-like qualities. It is your ball-and-chain. You yank the covers to your side of the bed, because, in a way, you feel cheated.

For me, this stage came when I began piling work onto my schedule. At first, it felt great: I contracted classes for myself without any sort of institute or agency; I perfectly factored in the time needed for commute by bike; I was making money; I was gaining experience. I was working about five, 2-hour classes each day; plus commute, which was about two hours of commute each day; plus lesson planning and cooking my meals in the evening. I was clocking in at about 5-6 hours of sleep a night, which began taking a toll on my nerves. To make matters worse, the construction for a six-story apartment building was in full-swing outside my window. (The construction is still happening, now, by the way, but at least there isn’t a concrete truck churning thunderously anymore.) All this bustle (a) made naps impossible and (b) brought dozens of hungry-eyed construction workers in to the neighborhood. Even when leaving my house at 7 AM, I would get attention in the form of flagrant staring or hissing or whistling or kissy faces or grunts or grumbling some other sort of unwanted two cents directed my way.

I began thinking about how Bogotá was chipping away at me: I had even begun shaving my arm pits, which compromised a preference I had rocked for the past year. It brought me great pride to use my body to say, “The media cannot tell me what is beautiful and what I should feel ashamed of.” Alas, as a woman in a South American country and particularly as a foreign woman, I got to the point that I wanted to do anything and everything in my power to not call attention to myself. I put my shorts back into the suitcase collecting dust under my bed. I stopped going for jogs. The rumble from construction drilling plus living near a major highway made the outside world feel uncomfortable and repelling from the moment I woke up. I felt stuck and resentful.

(3.) Decision Time:

To many people, the expression, “The world is your oyster,” seems uplifting and inspiring. Many expats with whom I’ve spoken—including myself– think, “If I could move here and find an apartment and a job and friends, I could do this anywhere! I could do anything!” And the thought of it is not uplifting, but frightening as all hell. It is after one becomes settled in a foreign country, after a significant amount of time passes and the concept of “home” is transient and intangible, that the stress of possibility kicks in. When you realize the amount of options that truly exist in this world, you realize how much potential you have to screw up and pick the wrong one. The weight of this doubt makes you re-examine if you’re happy where you are: if the reasons for such happiness or unhappiness stem from the place or from you. You examine yourself on a deeper level (blah, blah, blah), figure out what it is that you want (or, at the very least, you try) and you address the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma. (Every wonder where that gust of wind came from? It is the collective energy from millions of ex-pats all over the world flipping coins.) Some people are able to reignite the flame with this new home of theirs or they divorce themselves from it, hope for a more lasting connection in the future.

As for me? I decided to stay; for now, at least. In terms of the fight-or-flight response, I’m damn stubborn. This is not to say that the “flight” response is not a good fit for some people, as staying in a relationship that isn’t working isn’t so much fighting for something as it is beating a dead horse.

(4.) Dealin’ With It:

It’s at this point that the stock, ex-pat character must deal with his or her decision and move forward. He or she either moves out or decides to go to couples therapy or whatever. The problem is that one can’t help but think about all the other potential pearls in your ambiguous oyster. Though I haven’t fully completed this pyramid, I already can sense the importance of putting the doubt to rest. If you can’t do so, it really doesn’t matter which path you end up choosing because the doubt will ruin it; nagging every step of the way, “Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

At the end of this month I’m taking a month-long vacation back to the states, which will hopefully allow me some time to miss Bogotá and return reinvigorated. I know I was right when I realized that I needed a change, but at least for now, I’m testing the theory that it can be pursued through my outlook rather than my location.

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The banal eventualities of the pyramid which I presented may suggest a kind of disenchantment, to think that all your fretting is some stock grievance in a diagram that has already been set. This self-discovery thing you’re doing has already been done before. However, if you can put aside the fact that you aren’t as unique as you had supposed, you can appreciate the fact that you are not alone.

“Are You Nervous?”

People say that in the past ten years, more or less, the streets of Bogotá have been cleaning up, considerably. Still, the topic of safety is not off the table of conversation. Some people I’ve met have commented that they have lived in Bogotá all their lives and have never been mugged, while others have been mugged upwards of five times. I once read an article about how muggers pick their targets based on vulnerability, pace of walking and how likely a person is to put up a fight. Last week, I took in a 20 year-old backpacker from Buenos Aires and asked him about his experience with the matter. He explained that it is not only body language but perspective that determines how likely you are to have a brush with danger.

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“If you think something bad is going to happen to you, it probably will,” he said. “If you don’t, it probably won’t.” Obviously, these guidelines aren’t 100%, but I would attest that there definitely is some logic to them. And while most people will think of Bogotá as the last place to move to for these reasons, to me, taking these factors into consideration really isn’t so bad; comparable, in a way, to the trade-offs presented living in any given place. In Minnesota, for example, I would have to consider the weather as a great factor as to how I would dress, how I would get around, if the elements might damage things I would bring in my bag, etc. When I leave the house here, I almost never take my credit card or camera or anything that would be tragic to have stolen. If I see someone that could be stronger than me about to pass by on the same side of the street, I cross to the other side. I do not wear flashy clothing. I do not wear an expression of fear. I act like I have walked down any given street a thousand times until I actually have. And, thankfully, nothing has happened to me thus far.

            I believe it changes you: the NOT happening; the moment you realize that although it would be a solid hiding place, there might not be any monsters lurking in your closet or under your bed. This isn’t to say that bad things aren’t out there, just that your life doesn’t have to completely revolve around them.  

I’d like to think I have formed an understanding of these neighborhoods which lie outside the trendier ones in the way one can draw two points on their skin above a curved scar to make a smiley face. These sectors dressed in pot holes and trash piles and rusty metal playground slides don’t make the cut for tourist pamphlets. The expression, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” might be amended in Colombia to, “If it ain’t broke or even if it is, the government pockets the tax dollars so it ain’t gonna get fixed, either way.” And yet, when it rains—the mountains hidden behind a gray fog as thick as the concrete beneath it— the pot holes in these tired streets become puddles for children to play in. Trash piles and lone car tires disappear when fathers wearing tiny, pink backpacks bike ride slowly past them, tiny daughter in school uniform and braids safely balanced on the handlebars. Beside an old metal slide along the highway is a cracked patch of sidewalk painted with a Parcheesi board in chalk. At sundown, when the auto shops of 7 de Agosto beam with gold, a group of mechanics sit around the colored square with a concentration that could hush even rush hour traffic.  “Fearful” and “cautious” are two very different things. The latter I practice regularly, while the former seems to me counterproductive and inhibiting of appreciation for everything else; everything that has survived.

Since moving to the neighborhood where I currently live, since realizing that the bus lines are not as convenient or as agreeable in terms of personal space as a bicycle, I’ve been sticking to two wheels almost exclusively. There is a sense of security on a bike greater than when on foot. Those two wheels propel me to and from work, past construction-working whistlers, through national parks and through neighborhoods of whores, drunkenness and timeworn neglect. However, any potential danger in these unsightly parts of town seems to whisk off me like rain to Teflon as I pedal, bumping down broken streets: these areas provide a window into another world, yet my feet never touch down. I am nothing but another moving shadow in a darkened shortcut lit only by neon bar lights and car headlights reflected in the high heel rhinestones of other people just living their lives.

Having grown up in a “First-World” country, the roughness of Bogotá is undeniable: come to think of it, that’s probably one of the reasons why I chose it; because it reminds me of me. I can’t imagine talking to a single Bogotano who would attest that this is the best city in the world or even close: it is flawed and it is no secret. I think I’ve been looking at this city the wrong way for a while, looking past the dereliction instead of looking for something familiar in it; in the way the road forgives its perforations, the walls forgive their stains; in the way the landscape suggests that we all do the same.