Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Flashback: Bogota, Colombia - November 2012

Written by Adam
First of all, I am certainly no expert on South America.  It’s actually my first time ever visiting this continent.  I remember studying South America in about the fourth grade - Peru, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, the Incas, the Spanish conquest, that sort of thing.  Pretty perfunctory, and certainly the material was not presented in any meaningful context at that grade level.

South America was that huge continent located below “ours”.  Mexico was that large country in between the two continents, along with that famous canal in Panama that changed shipping in the hemisphere forever.  

To a fourth grader, South America was that continent featuring a famous river full of blood-thirsty piranhas eating hapless livestock.  And, those huge mountains were certainly emphasized as well.  I can hear the Andean flute music now.  In my mind’s eye I can clearly see the stone ruins of Machu Piccu as I recall the 16 mm movies shown in class.  There were lots of Bolivians wearing funny hats, and plenty of llamas grazing.  The stereotypes were endless and often presented vividly in black and white.

So, early on I knew a little something about the place - along with other places like Japan and even less about Africa.  But, I remembered it as it was presented to me as a child.  

The first South American person that I can ever recall meeting was a Chilean teammate on my high school soccer team, Omar.  He was a magician with the ball, very deliberate and quiet.  He was very short in stature, but was deceptively quick.  He had the dark skin, dark eyes, and the jet black hair - he looked just like a South American cast as the lead in a 16 mm movie.  Plus, he sure could score some nice goals.

David is the first South American that I've met since the millenium.
I can’t even recall communicating with Omar at all during a game.  He was doing his thing on the field while we were all doing ours, yet somehow we were still teammates.  He often times made opponents look silly with his skill.  Yeah, he’d smile when we would win, but that’s about it.  He’d take off his cleats and get on the team bus with the rest of us after the game, but words were scarce.  I did not learn anything about South America from him, that’s for sure.  Come to think of it, now I wonder about what we were all teaching him about North America.  As conduits to cultural exchange, we were both probably failures at that age and in that place.  I competed against who knows how many South Americans during the years that I played “futbol” as an amateur.  But, they spoke Spanish on the field and off, so no meaningful cultural exchange happened there.

Fast forward through the eighties and nineties - I certainly heard about Allende, Escobar, Che, the World Cup, Peron, Fidel, assorted banana republics, the Dole Fruit Company, Pinochet, the Falklands War, penguins of the southern hemisphere - and all kinds of other interesting political stuff while in college.  I certainly became more knowledgeable about South America through personal reading and mass media as I grew older.
Still, you can live for over half your expected life span, yet somehow you have never set foot in South America.  Then - all of a sudden one day - you decide to go.  To accomplish this mission, you take a jet plane to another foreign and exotic destination:  Houston, Texas.  At midnight, you board another jet in the dark...real CIA stuff here...and then when the sun rises you are suddenly smack-dab in South America.

The Downtown Business District of Bogota.
Let me assure you if you did not see the movies as a child:  Bogota, Colombia is in South America.  What did I think of Bogota, Colombia?  I spent thirty days of my life there recently, walking the streets and seeing the sights.  That’s not really a long time, but it does give you a genuine sense of the place - and it’s quite a place.

I can’t say that the crowds are anything resembling a place like Tokyo, Japan - not even close.  But, there are now millions of extra people in Bogota, and you can really feel them.  I was having a discussion with a gentleman named Ricardo, who easily remembered when Bogota had just about a million inhabitants - and now the number is approaching nearly ten million.  Ricardo is certainly not an old guy by any means, but in his lifetime he has watched Bogota’s population simply explode.  

The Downtown and Le Candelaria are just at the base of the hill.
The city is a sprawling grid, relatively flat, and a genuine trip hazard.  In places, Bogota has some of the worst sidewalks in the world.  It seems as if nothing is flat, nor aligns with anything else.  Curb heights are wildly inconsistent throughout the city.  Some of the sidewalks are also comprised of broken tile and disintegrating concrete aggregate, frequently collecting in small piles that end up pushed against the nearby buildings.  I had this wild idea (when I am somehow named the new Mayor) that as a civic project the citizens of Bogota could start the process of sweeping up the endless piles of aggregate, deposit the collected grit in government dump trucks, and by individuals exerting relatively very little effort gather enough building material working as a civic-minded group to create the next great superhighway in Colombia.

Urban planning no-no: Structures are creeping up the hillside in seemingly random fashion.  
That would not be such a bad idea, actually.  The millions of extra people that have descended into Bogota today sure need some new roads.  I recall that when we took our bus trip to Fusa that even the roads leading out of Bogota were hopelessly clogged.  Bogota is a city that has seemingly become overwhelmed by people.  It seems to be straining, creaking and busting at the seams under its own weight.  

The city seems young and old at the same time.  Mixed in among the nameless and faceless pedestrians that I observed was a truly pathetic paint sniffer, an outrageous you-aren’t fooling-me transvestite, the typical generic down and out urban denizen, the nouveau riche yuppie just passing as quickly as they can through it all - and then there was me.
Endless streams of people preparing to board the Transmilenio.
As you hang from what seems like the lone overhead strap on the TransMilenio bus, you suddenly come face to face with the real Bogota.  The uniformed school children on their way home, the harried office worker, the elderly, and the apparently supremely burdened - all roaring down the street with you.  You’d think that with a tremendous influx into the city that people would be a little more territorial, but they all seem to be able to squeeze into Bogota somehow.  That’s exactly what has happened in the surrounding hills around the city as well.  The hillsides have become dotted with red brick rectangles that now house the poorest of the poor. In addition to them, there are the others with no place to go since the neighborhood they might most naturally fall into has that no vacancy sign and feel to it.  So, the city heaves like a large reptile and then sheds its skin - only to pulsate for the briefest time required to expand a bit and then promptly fails to wriggle away.  The snake that is Bogota, Colombia lies motionless and coiled, yet it is still growing.

We saw places in Bogota where life was very good, and others where it was probably very bad.  I did not see much obvious charity, or much street-level evidence of a community that takes care of its own.  It is a little bit tougher than that in Bogota right now, I suppose.  Lots of people seem to be just eking it out, trying to avoid being swallowed by the omnipresent snake.
But, it’s certainly not all bad.  I saw laughing high school kids hanging out together on most days as they traversed the often treacherous sidewalks.  There’s a bazillion different universities and schools for just about every interest located nearly everywhere.  The shopkeepers seem happy to see you, and their good wishes after butchering your own seem to be politely genuine. You tend to see youthful faces all over town - it’s really a very young place to be.

He's got it all figured out already - he's moving to Medellin!
You just have to think of the optimism of youth, and how some day Bogota will be all theirs to administer and put their imprint on.  While their fathers and mothers will remember another (much smaller) Bogota, the youngest only have what they have - and nobody seems to be able to explain exactly what happened to the old Bogota, or maybe even why it changed so quickly.  I hope that the schools in Bogota know what to do with a genius, because that is what it might take in order for the truly massive city of Bogota to serve the aspirations of everyone who suddenly ends up living there in the future.   

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