Friday, August 6, 2010
..I’m officially in Bogotá, Colombia, a once-premier cocaine, murder, and kidnapping capital totally off-limits to tourism (and for many citizens, hassle-free living). Nowadays, with the guerilla war all but over, having been confined to rural pockets near the Colombian-Peruvian-Brazilian tri-border region, such claims are grossly overrated and carry little relevance (as in, they are not physically affected by it) to the vast majority of Colombian lives.
And while many would be hard-pressed to admit it, or dumbfounded upon hearing it, as it stands today, Bogotá is beneath many large American cities when it comes to crime, all the while being a much large city (I’m looking at you guys, New Orleans, Miami, Baltimore and Philadelphia). Today – for me, anyways – Bogota is a city in transition, shedding its once-violent (and, perhaps, still violent to those who don’t care to inform themselves on the city) image for that of a sophisticated, pedestrian and eco-friendly, bohemian and most importantly, a safe one.
Particularly at the forefront of the revamping are the city’s unique breed of politicians, and their ingenious ideas and policies; them, and the city’s massive youth presence. Politicians, such as Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa sought to change their city by implementing Colombian solutions to Colombian problems – of which are now being implemented around the world – with an emphasis on humanization and sustainability efforts. They vary, from the TransMilenio, a popular bus that runs as a subway; to Ciclovía, the restriction of major thoroughfares to cars, and opening of them to bicycles; to the deploying of mimes in busy streets to direct traffic and encourage safer driving; to the establishment of free classes cultivating and fostering citizen pride and culture. It’s obviously worked, too…or else I wouldn’t be here (or maybe I would, who knows?) writing this.
As mentioned earlier, the youth, too, are behind the change. Apathy and indifference has given way to a political conscious, a burgeoning street art and boutique fashion scene, and the emergence of trendy hipster districts. Literally, the city is full of street art, be it in the form of quick and easy political messages, to elaborate banksy-style pieces and murals, to the ubiquitous wheatpaste posters plastered around the city. Increased voting and participation in politics has also meant the rise of left-wing political force, elected with their sometimes unorthodox interests in mind (see above; Mockus once mooned an audience of unruly college students).
One of my favorite things about the city, though, are the off-of-the-deep-end, wacky modernist mid-rises apartment buildings. There must have been a serious influx of cash during the 60s and 70s, because these kinds of buildings dominate the city in a way indicative of something only a major building boom can provide. The funky buildings feature then-futuristic designs, such as x-bracing, and one of my favorites, windowless facades. Others have sleek curtain wall facades, complete with floor-to-ceiling facades that give the building a still-new, modern look. However, the bulk of the city seems to be done in orange-hued brick apartment buildings, post-independence apartments modeled after Spanish colonial edifices and 1930s Neo-Tudor, English houses that the Bogotá middle class drew inspiration from London suburbs. To those weary of grit and grime: Bogotá isn’t the place for you. Same goes for those clamoring for a Starbucks - they are none. In the entire country, which has over 45,000,000 people. I hope they keep it that way, too (no Starbucks).
As is the case with most of the Latin American cities I’ve visited, the sidewalks are in total disarray (save for the new ones, which have nifty bike lanes), some of which have since sunken into 2-3ft holes/pools in the ground. At least I don’t have to dodge dog waste with every second footstep, like I did in Buenos Aires. Also, suspicious characters, in the daytime, anyways (though, my walks to/from the TransMilenio station in Tesaquillo at night have been eventless), are far and few, unlike in Lima, where save for a few ritzy seaside neighborhoods, I was absolutely mortified to pull out my camera.
It’s all in the people, though. As the city is far from a being pleasant or even orderly, and it is not a food destination for many (I love Andean food!), it is the people who make this place special. I’m staying with a family from the outdoorsy state of Santander, a region known for its brash ruggedness, and they are wonderful! Especially, the family matriarch, of whom fixes me giant plates of fruit (papaya, mango, bananas and oranges) and tall glasses of home-made hot chocolate in the morning, and gut-busting meals of pounded chicken breast filets, avocados, fried plantains, rice and coleslaw with pineapple and raisins for lunch (even when I say I’m full).
Everybody is so warm, kind and eager to please. And it’s not just the family I’m staying with; it’s in the streets, and with Bogotá taxistas and TransMilenio riders. They are thrilled at the prospect of befriending somebody with a vested interest in their often-overlooked country. There seems to be a certain happiness prevalent in all spheres of society here, from the dark-skinned Bogotanos, who commute in from the deep suburbs, to the alabaster-skinned Spanish-descended elite, who can be found chit-chatting on iPhones over cappuccinos in swank coffee shops. They make it all worth it.