A fine line in Colombia

Plaza de Bolivar, Bogota

Plaza de Bolivar, Bogota

And no, before you jump to assumptions, I don’t mean that kind of line. Rather than the white stuff that has been ripping this country to shreds and responsible for thousands of deaths and untold suffering, I mean the line between necessary caution and paranoia. I have been in Colombia for just over a week now and am in the process of working out my new surroundings and how I should hold myself here. The last part of that clause has caused me a great deal of consternation over the last few minutes as it alludes to the testing out of news ways of literally holding myself. I promise, I am not doing actually this, holding myself that is, I am just slightly confused by this bizarre expression. Yes, I think I may have spent a bit too much time alone today and am overthinking the minutiae of each and every word.

Back to the main point, I am now in Medellin, Pablo Escobar’s ends, before he was shot in the face. Or was he? Was his death just as suspicious as Osama bin Laden being buried at sea? I digress. Let’s return to Bogota, where I spent my first week. I had the pleasure of staying with a  friend of a friend in her apartment on the tenth floor in the wealthy part of the city, up on the mountain’s edge. Yet again, as in Mexico, I found myself living amongst the 1%. Yet, this time there was no maid for me to feel guilty around every day and try in my basic Spanish to tell her that my first job had been as a cleaner and that to some extent, at least in the past, I understood how she felt, to clean other people’s toilets and then have to go home and clean my own. I have digressed again.

The view overlooking Bogota

The view overlooking Bogota

After a slightly unnerving experience involving a man in Mexico, I asked a dear male Mexican friend how I should have been holding myself (there it is again!) around men. The lesson was intriguing. He told me he felt like he was sitting his daughter down to give her the basics on men, or at least Latin men. I so wish we had had this chat at the start of the trip. The crux of the advice being that men think about sex a lot and see sex in most interactions. “So no” he said, “the man who invited you to stay at his home was not doing so because he wanted to improve his English.” In fact, it transpired that within two days he was asking me to move in with him permanently and share our lives together. Yawn. No thanks. So, on my first evening in Bogota, gasping in awe at the outstanding view only truncated by the mountains, I asked my new friend a few tips on how to travel in Colombia. Now, although I appreciate entirely her views, I had to remember that she had lived though a civil war, had been held up at gunpoint on a bus, robbed, and knew and had experienced countless other horrifying experiences. This is where the fine line comes in.

She had told me that in certain parts of Bogota that nobody spoke on their smartphones on the streets, as they would be grabbed from your hands within seconds. I actually saw people using their phones everywhere. Perhaps I hadn’t traversed the streets late at night, alone, but it didn’t appear as though people were taking the kind of caution that she had implied necessary. I was also warned that it was best to call for a taxi after dark, as there were several instances of people being taken to an ATM and forced to withdraw all the money they could obtain. Thus, actually best to not take your cards out either, where possible. Every day some new piece of advice would be offered, predicated as I mentioned before, on authentic occurrences. I was bordering on starting to feel rather nervous, and unsurprisingly so.

I must admit, there is a heavy military presence in Bogota, with a vast amount of guns slung over uniformed shoulders. One morning, after a delicious cup of coffee in which the teaspoon that accompanied it was partially covered in chocolate that melted as it created swirls in the cup, I walked past a shopping mall. As each car entered the parking lot, the whole car was searched as sniffer dogs pushed their wet noses into every nook and cranny. Not even in Mexico City did I see such vigilance when it came to security. Thankfully, I am not an ardent fan of malls, but still, my host’s paranoia was starting to make some sense.

As in Mexico, there is a gaping chasm between the rich and the rest and an ocean of poor fill that politically orchestrated space. With such poverty comes an increased propensity to be the victim of muggings, robberies, kidnappings and other such incursions. It had been suggested to me that I kept a pocket full of coins rather than getting out my wallet, which may then be stolen, as it was inevitable that I’d be approached countless times by beggars. This was indeed the case, except when the coins had all been dispersed it was time to move to notes of thousands of Colombian dollars. To put this into perspective, so you don’t mistake me as some kind of millionaire philanthropist, it is around 2,845 pesos to the British pound. In fact, the extent of the poverty astounded me: seeing such material depravity always does. I am yet to stop seeing it. It still puts me into a very sad and contemplative space every time. How can you not feel empathy when you see dirty, hungry people of all ages and skinny sizes scouring the rubbish bins filled with stinking remains for recyclables that they can trade in for money. All the while, BMWs drive wealthy coiffed women who’ve just spent the equivalent of a family’s food for a year on her new attire. But, like I said in my last post, I am battling away with futile feelings of guilt. I, after all, did not physically render over a third of the Colombian population poor all by myself. The battle goes on.

Over a third of the population in Colombia lives below the poverty line.

Over a third of the population in Colombia lives below the poverty line.

By the end of my first week in Colombia I had decided that although it was essential to remain cautious and to take on my friend’s advice, but that I could not and would not step over the line and be paranoid. Intuition was going to have to be my nearest and dearest friend, and guide me around this new and exciting land. Whilst ruminating on these exact thoughts in the early hours of yesterday morning, a whole new set of experiences appeared to want to push me back over the line I had been tinkering around. The list of warnings in the bus station included: If at all possible, don’t travel alone. Well, that one was going to be tricky to observe. Then, when adjusting my seat and preparing myself for the extremely long bus journey ahead, an officer took a video image of everyone on the bus, in case of kidnappings. As I placed my earphones over my head and pressed play on my Best Hip-Hop playlist, one of my favourite tracks by The Roots, Right On, started. I turned up the volume and was yet again soothed back over the line.

The beginning of a rainbow near some ancient thermal baths, an hour or so outside of Bogota

The beginning of a rainbow near some ancient thermal baths, an hour or so outside of Bogota

14 thoughts on “A fine line in Colombia

    • This country is off the scale. I have fallen for it, and did so almost immediately. If this was ten years ago, I’d say come and join me! Don’t think your fantastic family would appreciate that now though.

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  1. You really make your experiences very vivid Layla, with a good balance of self-deprecation and earnest reflection. And very much understand how you feel, being on another continent but with very similar security scare stories! Do take care though, won’t you xxx

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    • It’s interesting as both our paths at the moment are being affected by fear versus necessary precaution. I am taking care, for sure. Mind you, walking through the roughest and most dangerous favela yesterday probably doesn’t constitute as that safe really, but at least I got to see a different slice of Colombian life here, and not the lives of the 1%. I must admit, the 6 men that I embroiled into joining me on the jaunt were not coping with their fears very well in the favela, which put me on edge more than my actual environment!!!

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  2. Why did it end there? Was just getting into it and excited to hear about the bus journey, when it ended! You left me hanging for more… or was that the plan??!! can’t wait for next instalment! xx

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    • Thanks Yasmina! I was under the impression people didn’t want to read for too long as they were busy with other things. Maybe not then! I will write more soon. Got to get out of the flat now. I am feeling lazy, enjoying it, indulging in it and not feeling bad about it!

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  3. Great to read, I’m looking forward to keeping up with your travels and insights here, keep them coming, you write really well x x

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  4. Loved it. Great title and opening and really enjoyed the whole article- very vivid. I don’t know if there is a way to solve the guilt thing about having more than others as there is always going to be someone richer and someone poorer.

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    • Thanks Simon. As for the guilt thing, I know we discussed it the other day, but like you said in your comment, some sense of guilt is inevitable, at least if you have a heart and haven’t blocked out other people’s suffering, which is what a lot of people are doing. I don’t necessarily think this is such an awful thing, blocking it out as it is people’s coping mechanism to some extent but I am amazed that people can just walk past and perhaps feel nothing.

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  5. Beautiful and insightful post La, feels like you’re just in the room chatting about your past few days. I remember feeling quite alone when I was travelling in South America and it can rattle you at times, but it always propelled me to discover new things, people and places.
    Funny about ‘Right On’ it always takes me right back to Vegas with my girls and makes me smile 😉

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    • Ah, thanks so much angel. And yes, I have definitely felt alone at points but also accept that these spaces are useful and like you said, propel you to really get out there and make your life happen. I absolutely LOVE that track Right On, as yes, it reminds me of my beautiful crew whom I adore so so much. Oh, and went to check out some schools and universities to study Spanish and had to do a test and I am intermediate level! I only studied for five weeks, so felt quite pleased about that. When we do get to chat in Spanish our accents are going to be soooooooo different!!!

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