I have to be honest: when Bogotá came up as the potential place for our reassignment, I didn’t know much beyond what was in the news in the 90’s. After writing about these common misconceptions, I’m not the only one. But even after our ‘look-see weekend’ to sightsee and look at apartments, how are you supposed to get feeling and culture of a place you’ve barely visited?
Before Cody accepted his work assignment, we had a 4-day trip to explore the city and kind of ‘make up our minds.’ It was an odd experience for me—on the one hand, I was thankful that the trip was planned for us because the city is HUGE and I didn’t speak Spanish. On the other, I felt ‘handled’ the entire time and that we were presented with a sterilized, tourists version of our future home.
And even though it was well intentioned, I was presented with all kinds of suggestions of what not to do: don’t walk on the street, don’t ride a bike, don’t stop to talk to people in the street, don’t carry cash, don’t carry credit cards. This advice carried a lot of weight because it came from folks who were born and raised in Bogotá. I sucked it up like a dry sponge.
However, I knew that couldn’t be it because the feel of a place can’t be conveyed in statistics and a simple list of do’s and don’ts. So, before we left San Diego I read and watched as much as I could that was written by Colombians or from American’s who’d lived in Colombia (because I would be able to relate to their perspective) in the hope of broadening my perspective of my future home.
If you are looking to do the same, look for books and films about the place you’re going that were written by natives. And don’t take fiction for granted! While some stories below may not be true per se, the perspective, sentiments, and oblique view of events are incredibly valuable. They were created by people who directly experienced them.
There isn’t a concise answer to the what’s it like to live in Bogotá question—it’s something that has to be experienced. Looking back at my preparation, the items below were a very good start.
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez I really, really liked this book. The narrative switches between Bogotá in the 90’s, where the city is in shambles because of the conflict caused by drugs and scenes from the past when drug trafficking and the associated violence were just beginning to escalate. Vásquez did an amazing job showing that even if you weren’t connected to the drug trade, no one in this period was left unscathed.
The Robber of Memories: A river journey through Colombia by Michael Jacobs Technically, this is a travel memoir chronicling Jacobs’ voyage down the Magdalena River. The river is an important part of Colombia’s ecology, as it flows over 900 miles through the western part of the country and is a principal transport system for people and goods. The book is more than that, though, since Jacobs makes the trip as a sort of homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (the most notable Colombian author). Marquez is one of his principal influences and this region holds importance since it greatly influenced by this river and the surrounding nature. But just to keep it real, some of Jacobs’ philosophical musings about memory went right over my head.
Gringa in Bogotá by June Carolyn Erlick: A really interesting collection of observations about everyday life and culture in Bogotá. Erlick is an American journalist and professor who lived in the city for ten years during the 70’s and 80’s and returned to live for a year in 2005.
Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano Open Veins is a history of South America written in a highly readable narrative. It’s also really controversial. It’s been called Marxist propaganda and a scapegoat for Latin American governments as to why Central and South America aren’t as developed as the U.S. and Europe. On the other hand, it’s been hailed as an unflinching account of the rape of resources by outside powers.
Michelin Guide: Colombia Guidebooks are a great place for a concise introduction to your new home. One of the greatest things about moving to a new country is that at first, every experience or place is new and exciting. I think reading a guidebook is a great way to get excited about a move because for your first few months you will be more of a tourist than a resident. More importantly, having a list of places to visit can keep something positive on the horizon for that weird adjustment period when you’ve finished settling in and have to start living everyday life.
Maria Full of Grace (Film) A girl, desperate to change her circumstances, becomes a drug mule. This was a bit difficult to watch, especially because this is a modern storyline.
Colors of the Mountain (Film) Story of several families living in the countryside who are caught between the Colombian army and guerrillas living in the forest on the outskirts of the village.