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.
“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.