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The 5 Stages of Culture Shock in Bogota

Reading through my blog, I feel conscious of a generally negative undertone as I’ve been writing about my experience in Bogota. I initially assumed that this was due to my general dislike of Bogota as a city. I often feel that if I were given the opportunity, I’d leave Bogota for somewhere else in a heart-beat.

Then the other day, I was looking for YouTube videos that people had made about a new life in a new city, and one guy living in Japan started to talk about his experience of culture shock. I decided to look for a definition or framework to help me to understand what culture shock really was, and suddenly a lot of things started to fall into place for me.

I found an adapted model of the five different stages of culture shock known as the ‘W curve’ on the UK Council for International Student Affairs‘ website and I’d like to use this as a framework to reflect on my experience during my first year in Bogota.

Stage 1: The ‘Honeymoon’ Stage

When I first arrived in Bogota, I felt excited about my big move; about living in a new country again, travelling around and getting to know the big city, and most importantly, that I was again able to be with my boyfriend every day. At the weekend we would go to restaurants and shopping malls, and my experience on the Transmilenio bus network felt like more of a curious adventure at that point. I was also kept busy by a one-month teaching course which I started as soon as I arrived, and thus my days had some sort of routine. It was October and I wasn’t yet thinking about job-hunting; I thought I was ‘settling in’, and was looking forward to my sister’s visit at Christmas. I visited Medellin, which I really liked, Cartagena (my favourite place in Colombia so far) and the famous underground ‘Salt Cathedral’ in Zipaquirá. There was so much to see in Colombia, and I felt quite happy during the first couple of months of my new life.

Stage 2: The ‘Distress’ Stage

As 2014 set in, the excitement of Christmas in Cartagena had long passed; I now had my partner visa and it was time to start looking for a job. Things about the city which initially seemed curious and even mildly amusing to me started to seriously irritate me. This was probably linked to the fact that I had to start travelling to various places in Bogota on the city’s chaotic public transport system, and needed people’s cooperation as I was job-hunting, trying to open a bank account, looking for an apartment etc. Travelling around in Bogota was a source of great distress for me; the buses are often very full, and the drivers often drive recklessly, showing little consideration for their passengers. On Avenida Caracas, the busiest section of the Transmilenio network, there are a lot of cracks and holes in the road surface, and the Transmilenio drivers often drive over these at high-speed while the passengers hold on for dear life. In the beginning it’s a bit of an amusing adventure but when you have to use this method of transport twice a day, everyday, for 45 minutes each way, it becomes exhausting and depressing. I’d finish work feeling tired, and the commute home would suck every last bit of energy from me. A couple of times I’d be hanging on with all my strength for 45 minutes, staring into space with tears running down my face, being bashed from side to side by inconsiderate passengers, wondering what the hell I was doing here and when this nightmare would be over. I also had my wallet pick-pocketed on the Transmilenio, which did not improve my opinion of it or my fellow passengers.

Finding a flat in Bogota was also a stressful experience, as there are so many requirements which need to be fulfilled in order to sign a tenancy agreement here; it’s far more complicated than in the UK, where I had been used to calling estate agents saying I was looking for a flat, and then not hearing the end of it for the next couple of months as they desperately tried to find me somewhere to live (and guarantee their commission). Here, you call somewhere, and (if they even bother to answer the phone) they will show you a flat at their convenience. You’ll be left waiting for a phone call for days before the viewing, before you most likely discover that the place is unsuitable, that the land-lady is a nutter and/or that noisy buses pass underneath the bedroom window every 20 seconds. When you find somewhere you like and you try to follow up on a viewing, you will be left calling and calling until it finally dawns on someone to answer their phone. Then many agencies require you to be approved by an insurance firm before you can sign a contract. This means providing evidence of your earnings and, no matter how high your earnings might be, also providing two guarantors with a salary that’s double the monthly rent, and/or who are property-owners. As I don’t have many contacts in Bogota, I was only able to find one guarantor, and thus I had to leave a deposit of three-months’ rent. It took six months of searching before my partner and I were able to move into a flat we liked.

Following this was a bad experience with a bunch of cowboy furniture sellers (the story of which contains enough material for its own post!), and ongoing stomach problems (parasites from food and drink are very common in Colombia). And the food itself has been a cause for distaste, if not distress! The Colombian diet is, in general, soup with anything and everything contained therein, followed by a piece of meat together with potatoes, rice, pasta, yucca and plantain all on the same plate, with a small helping of salad. The food is generally bland-tasting and lacking in exotic flavours or spices. I missed the huge diversity of food which London offers…

So all-in-all, the orientation process in Bogota, travelling around it independently, finding a place to live, becoming accustomed to the diet – which are all significant parts of the settling-in process when you move to a new country – were all extremely stressful (and at times distressing) for me, and I think that this definitely had an impact on the tone of many of my blog posts this year!

Stage 3: The ‘Re-integration’ Stage

This is the stage where you can feel angry, frustrated and hostile towards the new culture as you begin the slow adaptation process. During this stage, I found that the more I encountered these typical features of Bogota, which are so different to what I had been used to in London, the more I rejected and despised them. I’d regularly declare to my boyfriend and others how much I hated Bogota and that I couldn’t wait for the day that I’d be able to leave. I was only tolerating it because this is where I had to be if I wanted to continue my relationship. I resented the general indifference and inconsiderate behaviour of people in Bogota (which, incidentally, is in complete contrast with the kind and loving way in which they behave with their family and friends); I hated the pollution, the reckless drivers, the noise, the crowds, the opportunistic attitudes, and I pined for my city…for London… for its organisation, smooth roads, its efficient, generally speedy and well-maintained public transport system, the politeness, helpfulness and general good manners of my fellow Londoners, the diversity, my beloved cat Tom… For me at that stage, it was everything that Bogota was not. To me, Usaquén market, as pretty as it may be, was no Spitalfields or Covent Garden; the Zona T would never be Mayfair and Simon Bolivar Park just wasn’t Hyde Park.

But somehow, I had to find a way to make this work; to adapt and reach a state of mind somewhere beyond mere tolerance of the city and its culture – for my own sake, as well as my boyfriend’s.

Stage 4: The ‘Autonomy’ Stage

This is the stage where differences gradually become accepted and one starts to feel more comfortable (or less uncomfortable, perhaps) with the new culture. Bogota is familiar to me now and I can navigate it with ease, by public transport or on foot. I know which are my preferred places, and I know how to try to avoid situations which will cause me stress.

At the time of writing, after one year in Bogota, I think I am caught somewhere between Stages 3 and 4. I pine for my home town a lot, or day-dream of any other place which might be preferable to Bogota. But, at the same time, I also find myself appreciating the things that I enjoy doing here, such as taking a gentle walk along the ciclovía on Sundays, perhaps up to the quaint Usaquén market or to the Parque de la 93 for a Sunday lunch at La Hamburguesería (my favourite burger restaurant!). At times I still find myself stuck in dark moments where I don’t feel like doing anything except play Candy Crush or watch the Big Bang Theory, trying to forget that this is my lot, my reality for the foreseeable future. But I also enjoy my routine of going to the gym, cooking something tasty for lunch at home before going out to work and teaching, earning a decent wage which allows me to save for holidays (and doesn’t just go towards my rent, as was the case in London). It’s also lovely to take an hour’s bus-ride outside of the city to enjoy the beautiful, green surrounding areas. Above all, I am grateful that I can spend every day with my boyfriend, which is my single, entire reason for being here.

I am popping my head around the door of Stage 4… but I think it will be a while before I am comfortably settled there.

Stage 5: The ‘Independence’ / Acceptance Stage

In the framework that I’ve used for this post on culture shock, the final stage is referred to as the ‘Independence’ stage, but I think that ‘Acceptance’ is more apt. This is the stage where differences and similarities between your own culture and the new culture become important and valued, and most situations will be enjoyable. Whilst I can say that I do feel independent now in Bogota, in the sense that I no longer feel disorientated, many things still feel very alien to me and whilst most situations are tolerable, and some enjoyable, I don’t think I can yet say that I’ve accepted all aspects of the Colombian culture. I think that to really feel settled in a country, you have to reach a level of acceptance of the things that you love and hate about the culture and the people, and personally I don’t think I will ever understand or accept the general lack of good manners, politeness and compassion towards fellow citizens; the audacity of pushing in front of someone in a queue, or deliberately short-changing someone; the tuts and mockery towards women in early pregnancy who dare to sit in the priority seats on the Transmilenio buses; the hypocrisy and double standards regarding women’s rights; the tendency towards opportunistic behaviour (i.e. to ‘screw over thy neighbour’). People complain about many things in Bogota, but I genuinely believe that if corruption and discourtesy were removed from the equation, and were replaced with organisation and consideration for others, Bogota would be a much nicer place to live. Having said this, I remain grateful for the fact that, as a foreigner and an immigrant, I have never once been made to feel that I wasn’t welcome in Colombia, which is a refreshing change from the current fiasco that is UK politics.

It’s taken me a year to go through Stages 1 to 3 of culture shock, and to linger at the boundary of Stage 4. Will I ever reach Stage 5? Come back to me in a year…

Framework taken from Orientated for Success, edited by M Barker, Australian International Development Assistance Bureau, 1990.

4 Comments on The 5 Stages of Culture Shock in Bogota

  1. I’ve been waiting for an update from your site, so glad you posted something so amazing! This is such an honest and well-thought post. Although there may be blogs complimenting the city, it’s also important to read posts that don’t fluff and give a different perspective— it just makes the reader experience real. It allows us to catch a glimpse of thoughts and experiences, not just one (which is why I truly enjoy your blog).

    All the best to you!

  2. I’m so glad you like the blog – it is meant to be an honest account, although these are just my opinions and experiences of the city; there are other ex-pats who love Bogota and have been here for many years already. Perhaps I will love it too some day, once/if I recover from the culture shock..! Thank you for your kind comment – all the best to you too! 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for writing this post! Its so relatable to how I feel and my circumstances. I am staying here for my relationship as well. I’ve almost been in Bogota for 2 years now and you have expressed perfectly my thoughts and feelings. Often, I feel like I have no one to vent with here in Colombia because I’ve noticed here that complaining or stating the truth tends to be a cultural taboo here. Bogota is a very difficult to place to live, especially when you’re accustomed a highly organized city in a developed country.

    • Agreed! Thank you for your message Karen. I still struggle with living in Bogota, and find that my culture shock is cyclical.. I’ll go through periods where I’m quite happy and content in Bogota and then go through a low period where all I want is to get out! You’re right – complaining is cultural taboo, even to the extent that Colombians never protest against the rife corruption at all levels of all institutions.
      The book ‘Colombia A Comedy of Errors’ by Victoria Kellaway is quite a good read – she lives in Bogota so look her up and see if you can get a copy, or order it off Amazon!
      My email address is naomidalton1 (at) gmail (dot) com if you ever want to vent 🙂

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