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.