…. that make me think “Yeah! This city and I are really getting along!” and then I find that the water has been shut off for 24 hours.
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.
When I was young, probably in elementary school, I thought being an adult meant having a cell phone. At home, when my mother wasn’t looking, I’d snatch her flip phone and play with it. I had a whole routine. Standing on top of a flight of stairs on the second floor of the house, I would open the phone with my thumb and put it to my ear. “Yes, Mr. President, I’m on my way,” I would say all professional-like. Then, I’d clap the phone closed with one hand and while holding an open umbrella in the other, I’d leap down five or six steps onto a carpeted landing. (I knew both James Bond and Mary Poppins were adults, so I assure you, this combination made perfect sense.
In high school, my idea of adulthood was molded by Greys Anatomy and Sex &the City, so naturally I thought being an adult was composed of extensive dating, high heels, witty gossip with close friends and writing newspaper articles on a laptop from a sunny Manhattan apartment with a Jacuzzi-sized coffee in hand.
It’s not so much that I’m afraid of being an adult so much as I had assumed it would be different. I don’t know how to do my taxes, I don’t have a dog, I ride a bike instead of driving a car, I fall short of 5’4’’ and, contrary to my grandmother’s predictions, I have not grown out of this wearing-all-black “phase.” However, I am reasonably financially responsible, I wake up before dawn for work, dress business professional when I teach classes in the financial firm or Petroleum company, I eat my vegetables and I do, in fact write on my laptop with the sun and the coffee and the apartment I pay for and all that. The fact that the apartment is in Bogotá and not in some big city in the states— that I didn’t plan.
I’m going to go off on a tangent for a moment. In one of my Cultural Studies classes, we discussed the process of reality being falsified by living in a world framed by screens. We see a movie that takes place in Rome and feel like we’ve been there, yet when we go to a party, our actual physical presence feels cheap and unreal if we don’t take pictures of the event. If we can’t see ourselves existing, what proof do we have that we actually are? If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to Instagram it, how can it POSSIBLY get any ‘likes?’ Technology having rooted itself into our lives, we feel safer trusting models of the ideal as presented to us by the media than trusting our instincts. Camera angles, tabloid exposure and social media popularity show us which kinds of lifestyles are deemed acceptable, which aren’t, and which aren’t even represented. It’s understandable why I have a hard time considering myself an adult: I’ve never seen any rom-com sitcom that takes place in Bogotá. Where is my fictional stock character role model to show me who to be? To give me a sense of approval?
Today, I have my own cell phone but I don’t call the president and I can’t even call my closest friends or my parents from it when I feel scared or alone. I think some people think that a person who lives abroad is one who refuses to grow up, someone who has run away from responsibilities. I would argue, however, that we are the ones who have the courage to rewrite our definitions. I think being an adult, like a real one, means deciding what’s right and what’s wrong for you. It means encountering situations which you have never even considered or seen played out in any movie or book you’ve ever seen. It is not marked by any sort of milestone, but by how scared life makes you and by how little you let that stop you.
This isn’t the life I had pictured for myself. I can’t walk in heels and I don’t have any plans, but at least this way I won’t trip trying to get to wherever I’m going.