Bogotá sits on a high plain at 8,660 feet, her more than eight million inhabitants mashed up against the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes mountain range and sprawling west to the very limits of the Savannah of Bogotá. The city is huge – one of the twenty-five biggest in the world and the fastest growing in Latin America – and I can see much of it from my fourth floor studio apartment in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood. I have come here both to try to learn Spanish and to spend a few months transitioning from twenty-two years of government service into a new life in the civilian world; Bogotá serving as an air lock, keeping the figurative bad air from my past where it belongs and letting me breath something new and untainted. Unfortunately, the literal air at more than a mile and half high is thin and, along Septima (7th Avenue), one of Bogotá’s main north-south arteries, throat-achingly dirty. The city has a small army of exhaust-spewing buses and a huge one of tiny yellow Hyundai taxis that yield to no one, and they seem to be on the road twenty-four hours a day.
Every American guide book and website profess to Bogotá’s decreased crime rate since the 1990’s, but also warn of a continued reputation for violence. As such I’ve restricted my travel to the neighborhoods between la Candelaria – Bogotá’s original pueblo and city center – and the tower-apartmented neighborhoods of the north side of town, where the young and upwardly mobile reside. Regardless, I came to Colombia prepared for the worst, and my threat mitigation involves carrying small amounts of cash; making little eye contact; growing an intimidating beard complete with a Louisiana-shaped bald spot; and adopting a feigned accent where I speak Spanish quickly, hoping to thwart would-be muggers by leading them to believe I am not a gringo but rather an immigrant from some far off land where the Spanish is so pure and golden it is spoken at a pace unintelligible to mere Colombianos. I mentally prepare for my attackers both with imaginary action (where I swiftly disarm them, knocking them out with an elbow to the face and then gently lowering them to the ground, teaching them a lesson in both the power of violence and kindness) and imaginary words (“You want my wallet? Well guess what. I don’t carry a wallet. I carry a money clip. So go fuck off”). But the truth is that I have never felt threatened or uncomfortable, and Rollos (a native of Bogotá [i]) are disarmingly kind and patient.
I spend my first days in the Hotel B3 in the Virrey neighborhood, and over the weekend the neighboring eponymous park fills with runners, leashless dogs of all sizes, a small troupe of teenage acrobats treating a slack line like it’s a trampoline, athletes using the two or three open-air gyms, and the thick, sweet tinge of marijuana. I have never smoked it, but even I can tell what the good stuff smells like. I try to run the footpath, but the altitude sears my lungs, so I instead spend the mornings drinking coffee with the crowd and listening to a gypsy band compete for our attention with an impressively muscular and immaculately dressed transvestite playing a wicked Spanish guitar.
My home for the rest of the month is in the hilly, middle-class, bohemian and gay (both in emotion and sexual orientation) neighborhood of Chapinero Alto, a collection of older two-storey row houses and newer apartment buildings. This city is crowded but peppered with parks, and every inch of space is used. Two blocks from my apartment is Parque Portugal (which I quickly label “Parque Marijuana,” or, after my Spanish improves, “Parque Lleno de Mierda de Perro”) and it is never empty. The benches along the solo winding path host musicians, beer-drinkers, and the ubiquitous necking college students intertwined so tightly they look like a Picasso. A concrete court seems to be used for basketball only early on Sunday mornings; the remainder of the time it is used for fútbol sala by kids and dads; by grimy construction workers on lunch break, uniformly attired in boots, denim jeans and t-shirts, orange safety-helmets lined up neatly on a slope; or by a four-on-four night league where the shoe of choice is a dirty Chuck Taylor and the athletes are so skilled it seems to me that the small, deflated ball might be glued to their feet. Colombianos might be Catholic but their religion is fútbol, and a Colombia national team jersey is the single most popular article of clothing, particularly on game days, when the city is riotous with the yellow uniform (and if fútbol is their religion, tejo is their vice, a Colobmian cultural version of bowling. Except with gunpowder and far more beer and other drunk people standing near your target. Did I mention gunpowder?).
On Sundays the main roads of Bogotá shut down to vehicle traffic for ciclovia, and hundreds of thousands of residents walk, run, and ride (relatively) smog-free. It has been going on since 1974, started as a way to open more roads for pedestrians and bicyclists, and if you take Septima from north to south, you can end up downtown in a modern-day bazaar replete with carnival games, junk vendors, food stands, chalk artists, llama rides, jugglers, cuy races, and street performers with skill levels from drunk to painful to huckster to needs work to spectacularly talented. Keep walking and end up in la Candelaria, home to the federal government, countless hostels, world-class graffiti, and the labyrinthine Botero Museum, a world so fat and joyous that even the graphic shooting of Pablo Escobar looks like it might have been kind of fun.
Four weeks is not enough for Bogotá; I want to know the city. After a lifetime of being a mere intruder into foreign territories, I want to feel like a local. I want a bartender to know me by name, I want to give secret directions to cab drivers that show my local knowledge, I want to sing with the nonstop chants and pounding drumbeats at a Milenarios game; to know the feeling of joy when the streets erupt after Colombia scores against Peru. I want to know the hangover cure for aguardiente, or where to find the best arepas for breakfast. Nor is four weeks enough to learn Spanish, and I think the rotating Andres-Manuel-Rafael trio of security guards in my apartment building has learned more of my language than I of theirs. I want to tell them how lovely are the days in Bogota, with their counterintuitive morning heat and afternoon chill. I want to tell the taxi drivers that the music is actually Aerosmith, not Guns and Roses, and that regardless, neither are my compañeros. I want to flesh out, in Spanish, this “American” thing, where apparently every Colombian calls themselves – nee, every resident of every country in North, Central and South America – an “American.” Though I may be a North American, and “gringo”, when non-epithetical, is fine by me, I am certainly not a United Statesian, and after four weeks of struggling to read signs, patiently waiting for a turn at the gym, asking for directions and generally feeling like an immigrant where you don’t speak the language but learn enough to know that you sound like a child, which frustratingly compels you to speak even less; after all of this I feel confident that I can adequately express what it means to be American.
[i] As opposed to “Costeños” from Cartagena, or “Paisas” from Medellin.