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Bogota and Me: It’s Complicated

It’s 2.40am. I went to bed at 7.30pm with an unexplained banging headache, so predictably I am now up and wide awake. It’s the witching hour on a Monday morning in Bogota, and the main road next to our living room is spookily quiet. With nothing else to do at this hour but to let my mind wander, I’ve started pondering my relationship. Not my relationship with my boyfriend, which I’m pleased to say is blissfully happy, but my relationship with his city, Bogota. Ah.. Bogota and me. If you’ve read my other blog posts you may have caught on to the fact that I’m not Bogota’s biggest fan. If our relationship were a Facebook relationship status, I’d have said “It’s Complicated”. And it’s not even all Bogota’s fault. Or even my fault. Sometimes, just like two people, an individual and a place are just not compatible.

Buenos Aires, 2004

Buenos Aires, 2004

I remember the first time I arrived in South America 11 years ago. First-stop: Buenos Aires. I was sort of in love with Buenos Aires from the first moment; the beautiful weather (I arrived in the middle of spring), the quaint cafés, the charismatic porteños, the delicious beef, empanadas, alfajores, pizzas, ice cream etc – it came as no surprise after five months when I weighed myself and found I’d gained 10 pounds! It attacked my senses and grabbed hold of me with the great passion that one associates with Argentine culture. You might say my time in Argentina was sort of like the “Eat” phase from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Beyond that, I was also learning a new language (I’d arrived in Argentina with ZERO Spanish) and I was volunteering, teaching English in children’s homes.

It was an adventure, but specifically, it was a five-month long adventure during my gap year between finishing school and starting university. No-one was forcing me to be there; I could go home whenever I wanted, and in fact, I ended up staying for a month longer than I’d originally planned. When I heard that one of the volunteers had gone AWOL after just a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires, apparently because she hated the city, I couldn’t understand it.. I mean, yes, the poverty and social inequality (particularly the street children) hits you pretty hard as a naive Westerner who’s never left the developed world before, but unfortunately that was part of the reality of living in a country which, 2 years prior, had gone through one of its worst economic crises in history (at the end of 2001).

Eleven years later, I am living in Bogota; it wasn’t entirely unpredictable, as I’ve lived abroad before and my boyfriend IS Colombian. But I look back and think about the girl who went AWOL in Buenos Aires, and realise that travelling and/or living abroad for extended periods of time is rarely without complications. I am in complete awe of these people who call themselves ‘full-time travellers’, working as professional bloggers and freelance writers. “That’s the life I want!”, I think to myself, with more than a touch of envy! But I don’t think that the nomad life is necessarily as perfect as we romanticize it to be in our daydreams; I think most travellers come with baggage beyond their backpacks, and a back-story. In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert was recovering from an intense relationship which had recently broken down. For her, travelling was part of her healing process, which necessarily involved going through all sorts of emotions and challenges. I think it may be the same for many others too – maybe the AWOL girl in Buenos Aires was going through one of those difficult phases.. or maybe her demons (if she had any) had caught up with her. I’ve read many travel blogs where the authors confess to having felt bored and unfulfilled in their previous full-time job; I’ve read about the need to ‘get away from it all’… broken down relationships, parental separations; stress at work.. when our souls have taken a battering (and I can certainly relate to.. well, all of the above), travel and all that it offers can be a real healer. New cultures, languages, food, people, a sense of excitement and wonderment as you discover the secrets of another world… it feeds and revives the soul, bringing us back to life.

Naomi&Javi hugging

Bogota, 2013

So why do I sometimes (ok, regularly!) complain about life in Bogota? Well… it wasn’t entirely through choice that I moved to Bogota. My boyfriend is Colombian, and after finishing his Masters in the UK, where he’d been living as a student for four years, the Home Office wouldn’t grant him the 2-year visa for which he was eligible, to stay and gain some work experience in his area of study. Even if I had married him it wouldn’t have been easy for him to stay in the UK due to recently introduced draconian immigration rules (thanks Theresa May..). So it just seemed a lot less complicated for me to move to Bogota to be with him instead, and to be honest, I was ready for a change and a new adventure.

But deciding to go travelling for a finite period of time, or even an indefinite period of time but knowing you can go home whenever you want, is very different from moving abroad indefinitely because you feel you have no other choice. Indeed, I could have ended my relationship and chosen to stay in London, but given that I love my boyfriend and being with him makes me feel happy in a way that few other things do, this wasn’t an option for me. So from my perspective, I did have to move to Bogota, and that doesn’t always make living here easy. Sometimes, it’s really difficult. I do think I’ve already passed through the worst phase of culture shock and homesickness – I don’t just start randomly welling up on public transport anymore, much to the obvious unease of fellow passengers! – but I still have bad days when I think “WHEN WILL WE BE ABLE TO LEAVE THIS HELLHOLE??!” And to be entirely fair, Bogota is NOT a hellhole by any stretch of the imagination. It has its problems; its class system which exacerbates social inequality and tensions; issues relating to gender (in)equality; most people’s tendency towards individualism; an overwhelmed and chaotic transport system; pollution; corruption at all levels of society.. But it’s no Afghanistan and it’s no Syria and it’s no North Korea. As far as I’m concerned, there are places which would be a thousand times more difficult to live in than Bogota; here I can comfortably afford to rent my own apartment, eat out pretty much whenever I feel like it (and I do enjoy eating..) and save money too, something I struggled to do in London (possibly because I ate out so often :)). Beyond this, you can’t put a price on pulling up the blinds every morning to views of the beautiful green mountains. And of course, it is worth remembering that although Bogota itself is – generally-speaking – no beauty-spot, much of Colombia is stunning, paradisaical even. Within a couple of hours by car or plane you can find yourself surrounded by completely different landscapes and climates, encountering distinct cultures and traditions in each place.  Colombia has its problems but in spite of these, it is a wonderful country.

Bogota regularly makes an effort with me, reminding me that every cloud has a silver lining.

Like any devoted partner, Bogota regularly makes an effort with me, reminding me that every cloud has a silver lining.

So I have come to realise, over the past few months in particular, that I need to start focusing more on the positives. I am here, and I will be here for the foreseeable future, so it wouldn’t be healthy for me to focus on the things I dislike about the city or find frustrating. And it wouldn’t be good for my soul. So I’m starting to use my blog as the ‘middle-man’, the peace-maker, the relationship counsellor who will keep me focused on the positives of Bogota (and there are many, honestly!) and help us to improve our relationship. Over the past 13 months I have regularly found myself fighting a battle with the city, but it’s not its fault that it has issues; everyone and every place does – myself included, London included. So here I’ve begun my journey to try to make peace with the city, to focus on its good points and, I hope, eventually come to terms with the things I don’t like. After all, every long-term relationship demands an element of compromise.

What are your experiences of Bogota? Have you found anything in particular difficult to adapt to? 

4 Comments on Bogota and Me: It’s Complicated

  1. This is in response to the article ‘Bogota and Me: It’s Complicated’. I found your love/hate relationship with this city interesting and I was unsuccessfully searching for what exactly it is that you do not like about Bogota. Details, please!

    • Hi Fred, the pollution and the traffic are two things I dislike, as well as unhelpful/inc incompetent bureaucrats. I don’t like the notion of “dar papaya” either (the idea that if you give someone the opportunity to take advantage of you (or rob you) then it’s your fault if it happens.). But Bogota is an acquired taste. What bothers me may not bother others!

  2. Wally Conger // March 1, 2019 at 4:05 pm // Reply

    The traffic, the absolute mess that they call “transporte.” The general rudeness of Bogotanos – constantly running to get ahead of you, forcing themselves between you and on-coming walkers – just save a milisecond; the constant bumping into me – even when I use a cane – often-times, nearly knocking me down. The incessant noise – everywhere – but especially the stupid screaming by amplified vendors/tiendas to sell stuff that everyone already uses – papas, aguacates, yucas – really? You need to aurally assault the barrio to sell those things that people eat every day? That whole “dar papaya” thing – basically means to me – and this is based on experience with all Estratos – any Bogotano will take advantage of you, given the opportunity. I keep hearing about “the warm Colombian people,” people who are kind and polite and go out of their way to help you. After 2 1/2 years in Bogota, I’m still waiting to meet *those* Colombians. Honestly, I’m only here now because I fell in love…..

    • Hi Wally, I was nodding my head at a lot of that – thank you for your comment. I find that once you have broken down this kind of invisible defence barrier of suspicion that most Colombians have for anyone they don’t know, they will treat you like family and be some of the kindest people you’ve ever met. But if they don’t know you and the barrier is up… well, what you said above. I’m glad you found love in Colombia 🙂 all the best to you.

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