Life lessons and a kind of love letter to Colombia

love letter to Colombia
One of the oldest streets in Bogotá, in the Candelaria neighborhood

I’ve been reading about place attachment on the interwebs. It’s a fancy term for falling in love with places like one does with people. In case you’re curious as to why it’s because I really miss Colombia and can’t seem to process emotions without a Google search to tell me I’m not alone in my feelings. I’m sure I have some interesting cookies.

But for real, I left Colombia over a year ago and it’s not fading into the background the same way as some of my former “homes”. Let’s not read this sentence as I’m unhappy in Madrid or will never go back to San Diego. I love Madrid (see here: proof in blog form) and have cried many a tear over San Diego (just reference the entire archive of 2015).

Still, each time someone asks where we’d like to settle more permanently, Cody and I respond in unison, with a little too much enthusiasm, Bogotá!

When they ask us why it’s not so easy to respond.

It’s hard to sum up your attachment to a place in a few easily digestible soundbites. I loved Bogotá for reasons big and small. We had a lifestyle that was outdoors and healthy and at a different pace. On the outskirts of Bogotá, I’d never seen such incredible nature.  Inside its borders, we loved the urban grit and pulse of the city.

But still, Bogotá is a complex place. Peek over the walls of luxurious apartment complexes and you’ll see a row of homes pieced together by corrugated metal. When we went to sleep, cozy in our apartment in estrato six, hundreds of recyclers were starting their day, moving northward with their carts and making a living from what we were throwing away.

Our apartment in Bogotá was around the corner from a busy street. In the mornings each corner had something going on—a juice stand, shoe shines, fresh flowers, urns of cafe tinto. There was always a line at one particular spot. From this stand, a woman called Ledi sold arepas, grilled cakes of ground white flour sandwiched around a choice of scrambled egg, cheese, and ham.

This gal was all business—you’d have to be with a line coiling around the block—and could make straighten your slouch in a heartbeat if she weren’t smiling all the time. She was petite but curvy, with light brown skin and curly black hair. Her dark eyes were always framed with sharp winged eyeliner. She seemed too young to have the five-year-old granddaughter that was usually with her, playing or clutching her leg.

Ledi’s routine was down pat. With one hand she would butter, salt, and flip the cakes. With the other, she took orders from a prepaid cell phone that—when unused—rested safely in her bra. She’d bag these orders for her son to deliver by bicycle.

Amidst all the flipping and buttering, though, Ledi always happily chatted with me. Once I asked what she did with her cart each night, a 5’x3′ wheeled concoction with a flat top grill and umbrella. She told me that she lives about twenty-four kilometers south in Soacha. The cart, however, spends the night in a nearby parking garage.

Soacha is the Bogotá’s biggest suburb. It sprawls southward, bubbling up the southern base of the Andes mountains which hug the narrow plateau where the city nests. Houses were quickly put together with rough bricks and sheet metal roofs as Bogotá spread, unable to cope with the steady influx of rural Colombians displaced by the civil war.  Even today, infrastructure of every kind is still trying to catch up. It’s a rough place.

Businesses like Ledi’s—informal vendors on the sidewalks—were outlawed in an effort to “clean up” the city. Most of it has crept back but even if there’s another crack down she doesn’t have to worry. Her cart rests on a special patch of brick set back from the sidewalk, on private property. She told me proudly how the spot was built especially for her by the building’s owner.

On a first impression, Bogotá can look dirty and chaotic. But when you pause to peek under the surface, what you find will often surprise you. As an outsider, you can’t help but make judgments from the country’s history—civil war and violence, drugs and an unfortunately persistent association with one chubby man from Medellín. It seems unthinkable that Colombians can also have a reputation for being the happiest people in the world. But it’s true. More than anything, anyone who’s fallen in love with Colombia talks about the incredibly warm and open people.

Although I haven’t explicitly asked, I know that many have stories like Ledi’s. I’ve never seen a bigger lesson in resilience. Among all that history, Colombians are proud. They know their scarred past, but decide to love their country anyway. Every Colombian you meet will ask you how you like their home and wait with genuine interest for a response. It’s as if each person has ownership in changing Colombia’s reputation and insist on doing their part to correct the perception.

Living abroad, in general, taught me a lot about myself and how I want to look at life. And so, part of my love for Bogotá and Colombia comes from the lessons I learned from its people. Although you can’t control what happens to you, you can choose your reaction. You can be proud of something that isn’t perfect. You have a part to play in how people perceive you. Most of all, don’t judge something before you’ve taken a moment to get to know it.

Bogotá irreversibly shaped the way I react to things and how I think. What I saw and lived shifted my paradigm. I have no idea if we’ll move back there someday. With the way my mind’s been drifting back there these past few weeks, I know my heart is certainly not done with it yet. In the meantime, I’ll just have to be happy carrying these lessons with me.

14 thoughts on “Life lessons and a kind of love letter to Colombia

  1. Danielle, estoy leyendo con alegría, con emoción, con sorpresa, con admiración… gracias por estas palabras que alegran mi mañana en esta Bogotá de corazón grande y de locos.
    Un abrazo inmenso!
    Mónica Giraldo

  2. Lovingly written and lived. So blessed we got to see it through You and Cody’s eyes. The time spent in Villa de Leyva will never leave us…..beautiful!

  3. Just moved to Bogota and enjoyed reading your article. Would love to know the cross streets of the arepa stand you mention :)

    1. Hello, Rena! I’m so jealous of you living in Bogotá. I hope you come to fall in love with it like I did! The spot I mention is on Calle 90 between Carrera 17-18. I don’t remember exactly because I always just moseyed down 90th (also we moved quite a bit ago!). I hope you find it!

Leave a Reply