After only four full days in Bogotá, you’d think this would be a short list. However, it is surprisingly long. This list does not include anything having to do with the drug cartels, paramilitaries, or national police. Generally speaking, Colombia is a safe place to be, and I will abide the warnings about places in the country I should avoid.
1. Exhaustion. My first four nights here, I fell into bed by 9.30. Part of this exhuastion was left over from barely sleeping my final night in DC because I had too much to do: packing up my things to make room for the renter’s clothes, seeing people, and actually packing for the trip.
Another part of this is because I went from living at 410 ft (125 m) above sea level to 8,660 ft (2,640 m). The high altitude takes some adjusting to. Then—because why not—I decided to climb another 1,500 meters up a steep path in order to look down on the Laguna del Cacique Guatavita. The views were beautiful, with Texas-big sky above and a patchwork valley below; here are more photos. It was worth it, even if my lungs and knees questioned this at the time.
The final part is because it’s mentally taxing to operate in a foreign language that I barely know. I took intensive Spanish classes for a month each in Guatemala and Ecuador—in 1998 and 1999. That was a little bit ago. Things I learned then are bubbling up to the surface and I use words that a week ago I probably didn’t remember that I know; I’m thankful every time that happens. But mostly I feel like a beginner and all this thinking turns out to add to the physical exhaustion.
2. Cars and motorcycles. I was warned about the traffic here, and it’s one of the chief comments and complaints from Bogotanos. But it isn’t the traffic per se that could have killed me, just the cars that make up the traffic. The representative from the school who met me the first morning explained: “Here, it is cars first, people a distant second.”
Stop signs are optional here (apparently many Colombians are surprised when they get tickets in the US for failing to stop). In some places, it’s actually better to dart across the street in the middle of the block than to cross at a corner. Better that is, unless a motorcycle is driving between the cars, and unless said street is a wide boulevard with…
3. Bicycles. Bogotanos love their bicycles. Every day, I cross a main boulevard where the median is a two-way bike lane with a small grassy area on each side. So just as I make it safely across two lanes of traffic, I have to look both ways to avoid being run down by a bicycle.
4. Random holes. My very first day, I took a nice walk along Calle 116, a wide boulevard. On Sundays, one side is completely closed to traffic as part of Ciclovia. Many people were relaxing on the grassy median, which also has some trees. I was eager for some shade so I ambled down the grass. (I know, it’s hard for people in many parts of the US right now to imagine it being too hot to walk in the sunshine—some day you’ll experience it again.) I hadn’t walked more than a block before I found myself sprawled on the ground. I’d tripped by walking into a hole I could barely see because it was so well hidden in the grass. Turns out there are a number of these, both well hidden and in plain sight, in all of these grassy boulevards, including the one I cross twice daily.
5. TransMilineo. Bogotá’s rapid bus transit system is impressive (but figuring out how to read the maps is confusing); it turns out it is the largest in the world. And I thought I might die the first morning I rode it. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration. Slight. In the US, we just have a different conception of how much mass can fit into one space. I could not reach anything to hold onto, but I felt perfectly safe because we were so packed in that even when the bus stopped short, I hardly moved.
The other morning, I let two buses pass because they were so crowded. But I did need to get to school, so when the third arrived, I dug deep, found my inner Bogotana, and pushed my way on. I was pretty proud of myself. The first sign that I’m adjusting to life here.