I surprised myself by coming to Bogotá. I never planned to wake one morning to see a hummingbird sip nectar from yellow blossoms in a treetop outside my fourth-floor window with the Andes as a backdrop.
Yet here I am. Happy. In a renaissance of rediscovery, everything new. I am learning everything over again: how to talk; how to eat; how to ask; how to live in a New World.
Love brought me here, a surprise in itself. At nearly 60, I was settled into Atlanta with terrific friends and a house I loved in a great neighborhood, Poncey-Highland. Manuel’s Tavern, a dozen ethnic foods, and weekly author events at The Carter Center lay a short walk away. I even enjoyed occasional egasms (an ego-orgasms) thanks to minor local celebrity status. Still, I craved more.
Then, once upon a time, a questing man met a beautiful Colombian woman in an airport.
The rest, as they say, is his story.
Bogotá still surprises me, after 18 months here. Before my move at the end of 2014, I hardly knew what to expect of this particular capital city. I knew nada. I had read nada.
Among 10,000 surprises, a few stand out—puzzling, remarkable, worth a mention.
Bogotanos are not morning people. How can this be, in the land of the world’s best coffee? In the southern U.S., you get a hey and a smile from every passerby. Bogotá? Before 10 a.m., it’s the land of the living dead. People just … pass. No smile. No hint of recognition. Thankfully, souls warm up during the day. By nightfall, bonhomie’s at full throttle. Friendly folk will raise glasses and send greetings even from sidewalk cafes. A stranger doesn’t feel quite so strange.
2. Before a Colombian woman starts any serious relationship with a man, she takes him for a test drive. Well, a test dance. Bogotanos know that if you want to get the girl, you better first understand the words of the great Colombian philosopher, Shakira: Hips don’t lie. Colombian women love to tell versions of taking their guys to a dance club, a rumba. Chicas check out man-moves the way pea hens check out strutting peacocks.
3. Yellow taxis are the eggs of Satan. Satan’s minions. Nothing on earth surpasses the bogotano cabbie for insolent disregard of traffic rules. Seventeen cabs? That means a road has 17 lanes. A cab here never lets another car into traffic. A cab driver 10 cars back will stand on his horn before a traffic light changes to green, even in the kind of traffic jam archaeologists will someday unearth and study, with driver skeletons stiff at the wheels. Taxi drivers here believe blowing horns is like making music. If that were so, Bogotá would be the new Vienna.
4. Without vigilantes, the name here for security guards, the unemployment rate in Bogotá might be 99 percent. Every block of the city seems to have a vigilante, as do many shops and businesses … and every apartment complex. (Even so, a recent headline claimed 40 robberies a day take place in Bogotá.) As you’d expect, security and transportation top the list of citizen concerns here. Still, I’ve walked through my part of the city, Santa Barbara, at all hours and never, even once, felt in danger.
5. This recently occurred to me: middle-class bogotanos I know work hard, plan hard, and play hard. But not so many of them, in my experience, create hard. In Atlanta, virtually every person I knew had some little artistic sideline or creative project going on: A book in progress. A screenplay in the works. A cooking class. A little oil painting studio out back. A scrapbook. A weekend rock band. The Colombians appreciate arts and crafts, no question. It just seems they’re so deadly serious with making a living and raising the kids and simply keeping the lights and water on that there’s not a lot of creative energy left for tuning strings or dabbing palettes.
6. Everybody here speaks a little English … or at least they try. That’s good for me. With my freckles and red hair, I don’t need a T-shirt with big letters: I AM A GRINGO! Folks here spot a gringo a kilometer away even, I’m told, by the way we walk. Often when I greet people with a cheery hola! on the streets, they answer in English (if it’s not morning, when no one answers): “Good morning. Hello. How are you?” They smile proudly with this cultural acknowledgement, not really expecting an answer, but happy to make a trans-language connection. I’m constantly asked about English lessons, as well – it seems learning the language I take for granted is something of a Holy Grail here.
7. Beautiful mountains surround Bogotá. The modern city rises in a basin that once held a great sparkling lake ringed by green peaks of the Andes. At sunrise, mists cover the mountains; they look like fantastic etchings of an Oriental land. And yet … I never hear bogotanos talk about the mountains. Ever. Denver and Vancouver have made themselves world destinations by capitalizing on the natural beauty and diversions of the Rockies. Here? Bogotá, a mile and one-half closer to heaven than most of the world, has the most invisible mountains on earth.
8. A city of 8 million people in the U.S. inevitably has rich ethnic diversity. That’s been hard to find in Bogotá. A Jewish friend, Carlos, told me the city has only 5,000 Jews. (You find 5,000 Jews in just a few city blocks of NYC.) The last time I saw statistics, Atlanta held 100,000 Hindus. Here, I just found my first good Indian restaurant. Diversity may exist, but apart from a few conspicuous Chinese, you don’t see it as conspicuously as in other big cities.
9. Bogotá tolerates activity in public places that wouldn’t be allowed in the states. On TransMilenio, the hard-working bus system, performers and the poor climb into cars to give stimulating shows or sad sales pitches. No one bats an eye. Mobs rush into traffic to sell wiper blades and fruit. Beggars walk right into coffee shops to plead for coins. Most anything goes in public spaces here, tolerated and indulged.
10. Bogota has what it needs to be a great world city. People work hard. You see genius here and there, and aspiration. The city, however, lacks one crucial element: Confidence. Attitude. It’s hard to find a bogotano—or many Colombians in general—with great faith in the possibilities of this place. Maybe it’s a function of chronic legally administered inequality, or past political disappointments, or the legacy of a half-century of civil war, drug cartels, para-military groups beyond the law … or just a kind of national skepticism that doesn’t admit the possibility of potential greatness.
This is the biggest surprise of all.
Colombia just might be the most physically beautiful country on the face of the earth. What if the hopes of Colombians had a beauty to match it?
Photo: Rodrigo Faustini, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.