Posted by: standing_baba | July 25, 2009

Bogota the Indecipherable

FOREWORD: A week has passed since my last blog post. It’d be a lie to say I haven’t had time to write—my friend Lina’s apartment in Bogota where I’ve slept on the floor for five nights is the ideal writer’s nest. It’d be equally wrong to say my mind hasn’t been set in motion by the last seven days’ activities.

Gold Museum, Bogota

Gold Museum, Bogota

Lina properly welcomed me to the capital with incredible generosity, car tours, and outings with friends; several concerts, street musicians, and buskers on the bustling main vain of Bogota, la Carerra Septima, have filled the musical void I’ve felt since losing my iPod in Trinidad; bar nights with local Couchsurfers reminded me how fun reckless abandon can be on the dance floor; the world-famous Gold Museum, full of elaborate indigenous ornaments ranging from toys to sacrificial tools, transported me to a primitive world; and, to my surprise, I understood a fair share of French while watching “Je Vous Trouve Tres Beau (You’re Very Handsome),” a French movie screened in the Museum of Modern Art. Though I’ve been busy, the main reason for so few posts is simply this: I found myself living more for this site than for myself. Too much time (and money) was being spent in internet cafes. My priorities were shuffled. Life is not a computer screen. This site is my way of staying in touch with friends and family, and sharing my experiences in South America. It is not, however, the reason for this trip. From this moment on, you can expect shorter but more frequent posts—which really is best formula for an interesting blog anyway. Balance between this blog and my travels is the objective. Since Bogota is Colombia, its main hub and governmental seat, I wanted to share with you a short (incomplete) city description, which only slightly touches on commerce and leaves out completely Colombia’s complicated political situation. I began to scratch this description in my pocket notebook while people-watching in the main downtown square, Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor, Bogota

Plaza Mayor, Bogota

Bogota sends mixed signals. Courting comparisons aside, especially since it’s unclear whether the city is masculine or feminine, it’s hard to describe Colombia’s capital. The climate is an indoor-outdoor succession of drizzly cold and fireplace coziness, similar to my Ireland memories which are always a warm sensation (Guiness?), an overwhelming sense of calm and welcoming and tradition, followed by a bitter breeze as the pub doors open to rain-wet streets or green rolling hills overcast with flat, pancake clouds—the exact opposite of those that fill blue skies on sunny days. In fact, Bogota with its red-brick architecture, endlessly circling roundabouts, and fashionable pockets of British-style country cottages that were swallowed by the expanding Latin metropolis, now dwarfed by modern apartment buildings twenty stories their superior, reminds me in deja vu flashes of Madrid, Dublin, London.

The root of my confusion: everything about Bogota feels, looks, or smells like somewhere else, the identity I attempt to ascribe it always a recycled mix of past places, skewed perspectives, and transient judgements. Yet the city is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Downtown is sectioned into city blocks of similar stores selling similar products at similar prices. There is the remote control and everything audio block, with deafening speaker battles between neighboring stores that in some incomprehensible economic law is fought in the client’s flavor, some invisible hand pumping up the volume and rolling down the prices. There is the quieter hardware, battery, and razor blade replacements block, where the average Gillette razor blade price floats around 50 cents cheaper than its supermarket equivalent; the pirated sportswear block with fake Nike swoosh mannequins who could hold their own in professional tennis matches; the half-block of book vendors constantly checking the sky for rain, ever-ready with transparent plastic sheets to cover their same ten titles that dot the pedestrian walkway in perfectly stacked islands of paperback. Why fight for scraps? Why the one in ten chance a customer will ramble into your store, which looks a twin to the others? Too much faith in the Virgin. Too much hopeful waiting. My economic sense screamed absurdity at these rickety monopolies…until it was time to cellphone shop on the cellphone block. In an easy thirty minutes I compared twenty phones in ten different kiosks, with laughable offers spanning a sizeable price gap, my economic disadvantage my blond hair. Just the same, I walked away with an activated phone and a smile, having saved a month’s worth of change for afternoon coffees due to my diligence.

Most Bogotanos, like my friend Lina, spend very little time in the downtown area. The capital is a modern, cosmopolitan city, with distinctly unique neighborhoods scattered below the Eastern mountains that fortress the city into itself with steep bordering cliffs. As with most Latin American capitals, the elegant restaurants and frequented bars are outside the potentially hostile urban center. A bus system called the Transmilenio traverses the grid, like an above ground subway complete with its own lanes and metro stations with ticket machines. This system is similar to the double buses common in Brazil and Spain that bend like an accordion to navigate sharp turns….


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