The First Two Months

I’ve been putting this off, writing about Bogota. Mainly because I don’t have any good ideas about where to begin. Julie Andrews playing the nun/nanny in The Sound of Music comes to mind, now and often (so weird, the media works that stay with us), exhorting her charges through song to:”…start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to start.”


We arrived in Bogota on an uncharacteristically sunny afternoon. Having Lucas with me on the flight: immensely easier than the previous day’s trek. The amount of anxiety accompanying solo travel with a three-month-old is difficult to describe. When the little one and I set wheels down in Miami, the entire back of my shirt and pants were damp with sweat. Would she scream in pain from the air pressure fluctuation? Would she cry in protest at being stationary? What if the passengers around us objected on social etiquette grounds to breast-feeding? What if I accidentally exposed myself to a hereafter-scarred teenager? Burned into my memory is the day when, strolling down Rome’s outdoor market en route to the Parthenon, a young woman sat, unabashedly bare-chested, breast-feeding a hungry little infant. My thirteen-year-old brother reacted with an intriguing mix of mortification, fascination and horror. The sight was none too pleasant for me either, a 22-year-old who had zero maternal aspirations on the horizon. Just contemplating the possibility of being that woman to some poor youngster – forever a symbol of abandoned dignity – was enough to start heart and pores pumping.


Thanks be to G-d, our little one is an excellent flier. No crying, minimal fussing, happy baby. For my own part, I avoided any clumsy flashing. A success, albeit a stressful one.


But with Lucas there, I could bask in the strength from numbers. Here was a man – attractive and successful – who walked with me, an encourager, a supporter, and an ideal blanket-shield holder for any feeding sessions. Victory!


So we landed, and I felt physically tired and emotionally exhilarated. You never sleep well the night before a flight, and this was only my second trip to the southern hemisphere. The first flight had been to visit Lucas’ Argentina, an introduction to his family and native culture, and also included my inaugural use of what had previously seemed superfluous – the “barf bag.” Given that radical unpleasantness, I approached the trip to Bogota with added distrust, prompting sleep to be ever more elusive. It was only en route, studying the little plane map on the screens implanted in the seatbacks, that I saw Bogota actually fell right to the north of the equator. This fact provided enormous comfort, and there were no more worries of nausea.


Immigration and Customs were breezy; Latin America believes in family and therefore whisked us through the special immigration line for passengers traveling with young children. The stroller granted us similar status with Customs, who intimated that asking anyone with a baby to put their luggage through scanners would be both absurd and unconscionably rude. Please! Move on through!


Immediately, I saw there were going to be perks to living in this culture. The unspoken sentiment seemed to be that if you had a baby, go about your business in peace. We – the friendly people of Colombia – will give you extra help on your way.


This has persisted in being the case. Doors are opened. Bags are carried. Deference in navigating crowds remains the rule. Incredible! I thought having an infant in the city would be cumbersome; instead, it’s a VIP pass.


But back at the airport, we met the driver Lucas’ company sent and loaded up the car. Driving the thirty minutes or so to our apartment, Lucas pointed out the Light-rail lines, the mountains, the erratic driving habits of Bogotanos. I remember thinking the city looked so much like all the pictures I’d seen – a remarkably low-height skyline, red brick buildings just six – ten stories high, lots of graffiti, lots of sprawl. It is not an immediately striking or beautiful city. Bogota looks rather like the constantly burgeoning rings of a whirlpool with no magnetic center, just a gradually less and less forceful ripple of building stretches.


Optimism, I’d earlier determined, would rule the day. And so I looked at the mountains, green and gorgeous, and reminded myself that all cities look better after some acquaintance.


But as it turns out, I’ve gotten to know only one small section, a five-ten block square surrounding our apartment. Driving here is out of the question: I need serious and lengthy practice getting adjusted to a stick shift, but that’s the smaller of the issues. The real problem lies in what Bogotanos’ idea of driving entails. Essentially, get on the road and behave as if your destination cannot exist without your immediate presence, and every other road-bound entity is a malleable disruption or otherwise invisible. Just today, I found out from Manuel and Carla – two new friends here – that Colombia doesn’t require any kind of driving test to receive a license. You prove yourself better than legally blind, and you’re free to enter the roadways at will.


Taxis are another no-go. My shaky Spanish does not suffice the complexities of giving directions and haggling over run-arounds. There is also the real possibility of crime, coming most regularly the Paseo Milonario: the Millionaire Ride. Cab picks you up, proceeds to scoop up several armed buddies, and you ride around extracting cash from ATMs until they grow bored or your account is completely empty. The commonality of this practice is widely known. So I’d need to pre-order a taxi over the phone, and the language barrier prevents me from doing anything of the sort. We’ll see where we stand in six months.


Buses are forbidden to anyone working at the Embassy, and I take my safety cues from them. But witnessing the system here is enough to deter any newbie from hopping on. For starters, they operate like taxis: you just hail them from the sidewalk and alert the driver when you want to exit. Once again, too much required discussion for me. I’ve also heard you pass your fare up to the driver from the back, where you enter, and that necessarily entails knowing the fee, which I’ve never seen posted anywhere. Most of them are jam-packed full, claustrophobic, and there’s no way we’d manage those stairs with a stroller.


And so, we walk. In these outings, I’ve grown to love our sleepy piece of the city. Old, magnificent and mammoth trees line the streets, and we are just half a mile or so from the mountains, dashing up behind our building, lush and mysterious. We don’t live on a major road, and so our little street is remarkably peaceful. All the buildings are made of red brick, sandy stones or muted gray concrete, surrounded by year-round green and blooming branches. It’s spectacularly lovely. Blocks away, there is a park with a coffee shop whose employees are accustomed to my barely coherent mutterings, and bless me with smiles and cafes con leche without complaint, a testament to friendliness.


Really, the Colombian people altogether are friendly. They smile, they refrain from shoving or shouting, the two typical indicators that you’re in a Big City with Important People. Women especially will strike up conversations (quickly realizing these will be one-sided with my dorky nodding and limited replies) over the adorable baby.


There was one day, standing in line for the morning usual, that two men waiting in front of me were discussing an impending business transaction. It took a few seconds to register that I actually understood what they were saying: English! The one doing most of the talking did so in an Australian accent, already excited about their next big acquisition in Africa. His counterpart was an extraordinarily tall and pale man who sounded to be from Scandinavia. They carried on about million-dollar deals, loud and not a little pompous.


I looked out across the street at the park, where kiosk vendors line up, offering Trident gum, single cigarettes, telefono minutos for those still waiting to own a cellular. People were filling up the benches, where more than one of the countless shoe-shiners knelt beneath their patrons, studiously scrubbing, rubbing and glossing mens’ leather dress shoes and womens’ knee-high boots. It’s a humbling posture. When I first arrived, I was stunned at this old world vestige; I was taken aback. Rather inconceivable, to imagine the poor of America working as shoe-shiners to make a living.


My own black boots had been in dire need of a shining themselves, and so one day – weeks after the coffee-shop encounter – I said yes to the proffered service for the first time. I was having a coffee with a friend at a different cafe, and felt emboldened by her presence and superior Spanish. The man was young – perhaps 28 – and had a charming smile that revealed he’d had few opportunities to frequent the dentist. I felt uncomfortable, like I was participating in some sort of class ritual from a previous era I despised. But he showed no signs of any similar feeling, and went about his work meticulously, with pride. He did a top-rate job too. The price was the equivalent of $2.00, and he wouldn’t accept the much larger bill I tried to pay him with.


It was I who then felt ashamed.


Much the same feeling I had on that earlier day, wondering what it must be like to endure the booming arrogance of foreigners who jet in to make a bundle off your country’s abundance and then zip out to do the same elsewhere. I come from a country with a generous welfare state; but I wonder at what cost our generosity? There is immense dignity in working. That is Colombia’s biggest piece of cultural knowledge I’ve yet encountered. From the individuals and families who collect recycling out of trash bags to the people selling flowers and handicrafts on the street to the performers who juggle and flip during stoplights, Colombians do not ask your money for nothing. And they do not feel ashamed in their work, nor are they treated with pity or disdain from those with more traditional livelihoods.


And thus I left the coffee shop that day, convinced only the English-speaking world capable of being so obnoxious and disrespectful. Perhaps to encourage me against such lazy stereotyping, divine wisdom had me cross paths on my stroll home with four 20-somethings, two of each gender, strutting down the sidewalk. The girls had big hair, big heels, big jewelry and big makeup. The two gentlemen looked straight out of a Tommy Hilfiger ad, and yes, that includes a sweater tied daintily around the shoulders. They were aggressively smoking cigarettes and as we passed each other, voices from the two girls verified that a) these were Colombians and b) they inherited a similar ditzy lilt to their espanol as certain stylistically equivalent youngsters from southern California.


Only to the individual can we judge. Even then, we are warned against judgment at all. And so, I’ll close this first musing about Bogota with an overall impression: the people of Colombia are a fascinating society to behold.