View from the 13th Floor

Bogotá, Colombia

Perched on the thirteenth floor of the Gran Manzana apartment building in Bogotá, I can see and feel the life of this city.  Tall brick buildings hover over and stare at me through rows of flashing windows.  I stare back.  Some windows reveal little, shuttered by drab curtains or gauzy hammocks.  Others expose shadowy apartments containing unmade beds and lonely plants.  A man in a bathrobe across the street and several stories down gazes in my direction.  I look away, landing on a top floor, a penthouse with red Chinese lanterns that wave in the wind.

Below me, the traffic along the Carrera 13 ebbs and flows, the hum of moving vehicles occasionally shattered by the roar of a truck or the sudden clamor of honking taxis.  The currents of this wide avenue, lined with elegant leafy trees, rush south towards the mountains that tower over the eastern edge of the city.  There, La Macarena, my first and favorite neighborhood, rises with pride from the carpeted green slopes.  With nostalgia, I make out the same bull-fighting stadium and climbing brick towers– designed to mimic the mountains behind them– that greeted me when I arrived here ten years ago.

Other parts of the scene are unfamiliar.  Where Carrera 13 meets Carrera 7, a pedestrian path lined with carefully planted flowers and shrubs leads to a large glass box, the entryway to a brand new subterranean bus station.  Passengers, eager to avoid the chaos and grime of the traditional bus system, flock to this station and happily wait in line to board the fleet of red Transmilenio buses that will transport them through an underground tunnel.  They do not seem perturbed by the fact that, after a only block of zooming through this tunnel, they will emerge onto the traffic clogged Carrera 7 side by side with the same buses they had been hoping to avoid.

Nearby, new apartment buildings with green exteriors laden with plants echo the flowers that decorate the entryway to the Transmilenio station.  Pedestrians wearing surgical masks pass by quickly, hardly noticing the burgeoning jungle around them.  Only the thick cloud of smog hanging low to the streets concerns them.  Bogotá, with all its contradictions, continues to tug at my heart.

The New Bogotá

Transmilenio, Bogota, Colombia

I landed at El Dorado Airport in Bogotá at 5:30 in the morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but full of anticipation.  I had heard many accounts of the great changes Bogotá had undergone since I left this city, eight years ago, and I was eager to see them for myself.  The first surprise would be at the airport.

Bogotá’s airport, I discovered, had transformed from a single tumbledown terminal into a giant greenhouse flooded with light filtering in through expansive windows.  Inside, it gleamed with silver, from the escalators to the rafters to the shiny conveyer belts spinning merrily in the baggage claim.  At each checkpoint– first at Immigration, then at Customs—the jumbled masses of the past had disappeared, replaced by short lines and calm efficiency.

Outside the airport, an ample roadway hummed with multiple lanes of orderly traffic.  There, my husband’s family waited for me at the designated place for a curbside pickup, a shocking innovation for an airport that until recently ejected its passengers into a chaotic lot milling with taxi drivers and panhandlers.  Even the pickup zone had an air of grandeur and modernity.  Tall columns imposed order and supported a second story with its own roadway and orderly lanes of traffic.

As we drove from the airport towards the heart of the city, a cloud of smog engulfed us.  Soon, we merged onto a large artery clogged with traffic.  Gaudy buses of all shapes and sizes, from stunted blue minivans packed with passengers to enormous half-empty clunkers bursting with festive colors and loud Salsa and Vallenato music, wheezed by on the verge of collapse.  A bright yellow river of taxis inched along slowly, honking impatiently as they attempted to bypass the buses.  Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia.  Ah, this is the Bogotá I know!

In the midst of this maelstrom, slick red buses emblazoned with the logo “TransMilenio” whizzed by in their own lane, stopping to pick up passengers at compact boxes of translucent glass similar in style to what I had seen at the airport.  This was the city’s attempt to combat the snarl of traffic, a rapid transit system that functions like an aboveground metro.  Yet, a lane away from the fleet of evenly spaced red buses, the throng of vehicles lingered.  As I would discover repeatedly during my ten days in Bogotá, impressive as the city’s evolution may be, the past is never far.

Back in Bogota

Bogotá, Colombia

This past week, I returned to Bogotá, a city I lived in from 2004 to 2006.  In the following entry, I reflect on my first visit to Bogotá, ten years ago.

Ten years ago, at the age of 22, I arrived in Bogotá for the first time.  It was the summer after my college graduation and I had come for a three-month internship.

Almost everyone in my life cautioned me against going to Colombia.  Their fears were based on a vague perception of drug lords and violence, stereotypes which I dismissed as misinformed and exaggerated.  Entranced by romantic illusions, I imagined Bogotá in my own way: an exotic metropolis high in the Andes, a place where people led festive, spirited lives despite the volatility of the social and political forces around them.  The very fact that so little was known about Colombia intrigued me.  I yearned to discover it for myself.

As my departure neared, however, my excitement gave way to panic.  Soon, I would be in the actual Bogotá, not the Bogotá of my imagination.  Had I been naïve to believe I would be safe there?  Panic set in, tainting my optimism, and by the time I caught my first glimpse of Bogotá, I viewed the city through a prism of fear.

From the air, Bogotá appeared cold and wintry, a sprawling checkerboard of deep green forest and red brick veiled by low and heavy clouds.  Not quite the land of eternal spring described by my guidebook.  The road from the airport to the apartment where I had rented a room appeared equally dismal, a blur of concrete streets and smog from passing buses.  Each bus was packed with passengers, silent and sullen, their faces pressed against vapory windows.

Once in the safety of my apartment, I crept into my bed and avoided leaving my room.  During my first two days in Bogotá, I left my apartment only once.  The streets were nearly empty, except for a few beggars slumped along cracked sidewalks.  I walked past them quickly and entered a nearby marketplace, a maze of tattered makeshift stands manned by indigent vendors who watched me with suspicion.  Quickly, I bargained for bloodied chicken bones and soiled herbs, then nervously rushed home to prepare a broth.

On my third day, I had no choice but to explore more of the city.  My internship would be starting in a few days and I had to meet with my supervisor at the government office where I would be working.  I awoke early and emerged from my apartment to discover Bogotá transformed.  The gray clouds that had draped the city since my arrival had disappeared and a brilliant sun shone in their place.

In this new radiant light, I noticed for the first time the charms of my neighborhood: the oranges and blues of the faded colonial architecture and the bright handmade signs of the quirky shops and art galleries.  In the city center, site of my new office, I marveled at the cobblestone streets bustling with lively street vendors.  I then ascended into the deep green mountains that tower above Bogotá and traveled north along a lovely forested thoroughfare with views of the city below.  From that day forward, Bogotá slowly unveiled itself to me, surpassing the expectations I had dreamt up for this city before my arrival.