Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Walk in La Candelaria

If you are a foreigner, this is where you will likely spend a lot of your time. La Candelaria is Bogotá’s oldest neighborhood with a bohemian and cosmopolitan feel. It is filled with museums, universities, theaters, and libraries, making it a vibrant historical and cultural center. On weekends its bars and restaurants are packed with young people from around the world.

La Candelaria is located in the heart of the city with the nearby commercial district (with its skyscrapers) to the north, and the steep mountain peeks (such as Monserrate) to the east. It retains a lot of its beauty from its past. When the first Spanish conquistadores arrived in 1538, the area was inhabited by the Chibcha Indians (Muiscas). The conquistadores imposed their will on the native population and began constructing the buildings that are mostly still intact today.

This Spanish architecture is what many tourists come to see. Oddly enough, I haven’t spent much time in La Candelaria because I don’t have any friends that live there, and I tend to stay away from the touristy areas. However, since it was a pleasant, sunny day, I decided to take a walk for a couple hours this afternoon in La Candelaria. It feels a lot like Europe. There are many one-way streets. Some have cobblestones, and others are blocked off for pedestrians. The buildings are usually no more than two storeys with brightly-colored stucco walls, red-tiled roofs, projecting eaves, wrought ironwork, and carved balconies. Bogotá’s main plaza, called Plaza de Bolívar, has elaborately decorated government buildings and is a popular hangout for the large pigeon population. A few blocks away is Palacio de Nariño, Colombia’s version of the White House, where President Álvaro Uribe lives. On Sunday afternoons, there is the changing of the guard. Naturally, this entire area is very secure as can be seen by the policemen and military soldiers on every block. More than a decade ago this area was less safe, and has seen its share of violence. Maybe that is why several people warned me to be careful walking alone with an expensive camera. I’m glad I ignored them as I was able to get the shots you see below.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Like every weekday morning, I left my apartment at 5:40 a.m. At first, everything seemed normal. The sun was rising but it still was dark. The streets were quiet and practically empty. I then saw something that made me stop and stare. A red Mercedes-Benz sat in front of a statue (Antonio José de Sucre) in Parque Lourdes. The car’s front end was completely smashed, and a man was sitting alone behind the wheel, motionless, with blood splattered on his yellow sweater and white pants. His front door was opened. A police van was parked next to the car. It was an obvious accident. But why? And how? Parque Lourdes is a beautiful park that is blocked off for pedestrians only. Each day vendors and locals sell and shop and hang out here. There is a huge church, Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, in the middle of the park.

As I began taking photos a policeman in the van asked me to see my camera. I showed him the photos I had taken. He seemed more interested in my camera than the accident. It was just my small Canon point-and-shoot camera. I asked him if the guy was borracho, or drunk. He nodded, yes. The whole scene was rather bizarre. It was such an odd place for a car accident. It was an expensive car and the driver was middle-aged and looked wealthy. The policeman was sitting in his van and acted as if I was a tourist taking photos of the church. Nobody was around.
I only stayed for a minute and then left for work.

Four hours later, when I returned home, I passed through Parque Lourdes. The red Mercedes was gone. There was a large chunk missing at the base of the statue. Farther down the walkway I saw scrape marks and pieces missing on the curb. It isn’t a small curb. The driver must have been completely borracho. What a way to start your day. I am glad I don’t have a car, I thought to myself on my walk back to my apartment.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Elementary School

In my free time I have been working on a photo documentary of Ciudad Bolívar, the largest and poorest region of Bogotá. Since my students canceled our English classes today, I decided to go to the southern part of Ciudad Bolívar because I have never been there. I woke up early and in an hour I was at one of TransMilenio’s final stops, Portal del Tunal.

I had taken a photo of a map I had and printed it so I wouldn’t have to carry a big map of the city. It was easy to follow, using the mountains and Tunjuelito River as landmarks. Along the way I stopped in a bakery and bought some pastries. I ate them all, but saved some pound cake for the dogs. In Ciudad Bolívar there are many stray dogs, many of which have chased or tried to attack me. I have learned my best defense is food. It turns some of the meanest dogs into my friendly companions. Anyhow, I eventually wandered past Avenida Boyacá to a neighborhood called Lucero Alto. It was around here (it’s hard to determine exactly where I was because there are so many neighborhoods close together) that two policemen on a motorcycle asked me what I was doing. I explained to them I was a journalist. They told me to be careful because someone might shoot me for my camera. One of them lifted his hand toward me as if it was a pistol to emphasize his point. He was a bit more dramatic than a few other people who I met who simply said there were a lot of thieves and to watch my camera closely. I respect their concern, but sometimes danger is a part of the job. Personally, I’ve never felt this way in Ciudad Bolívar ... knock on wood.

I then walked in the opposite direction of the police, down a steep hill to a basketball and soccer blacktop. In Bogotá, most of the basketball courts have soccer goals in front of the baskets, and are virtually always used for soccer games. When I arrived there was a teacher standing near the center court with a group of young students around her dressed in matching dark green uniforms. I walked up to her and asked if I could take some photos of the students. She seemed to act as if she had expected me to arrive. She said sure, and then proceeded to ask the children to describe me... He is tall... He has a beard... They were working on their descriptive vocabulary. They seemed well behaved and attentive to their teacher’s instructions. Then she told them that I wanted to take photos of them. That one sentence was like a shot of adrenaline. They began jumping around, grabbing and tugging at me, and pleading for me to take their picture. It was a big challenge. I have photographed children before but never so many at once, or so wild. Getting a large group of excited children (ages 8 to 12) to follow directions is something beyond my control. After high school I had wanted to be an elementary school teacher. Maybe this was why it never happened. As I took some photos, there were a few students sitting down and studying, but just a few. The teacher, Fabiola, was very kind and she recommended other places I might like to photograph for my story. She then escorted me to the school.

It was a big room inside a normal-looking building. You wouldn’t know it was a school unless you walked inside. I never found out the school’s name. It was an elementary school. It had one room, one bathroom, and one blackboard. There were two classes of students. One class was working outside on the soccer court while the other students had a lesson in the classroom. There were more than 30 students in each class. The teacher inside seemed to have an endless supply of patience. I guess you have to when you’re alone. When it got too noisy, she raised a fist in their air and all of the students followed suit in silence. Some students stood in front of the class and read what they had written in their notebooks. I was so focused on the photos I was taking that I didn’t have a clue what they said. I did, however, walk around the classroom and read the papers they had hanging on the walls. They had a common theme for respect for nature and others, as well as a desire for peace and love. Some students wrote about freedom for the kidnapped, and one paper had a small photo of Íngrid Betancourt.

A while later the other class came in and it felt like total chaos. I feel partly to blame. A group of boys jumped around and tugged on my arms, yelling, “Gringo! Gringo!” I don’t think they had ever met an American before. In the mist of the commotion they asked me how to say various words in English such as car, chair, teacher, and several curse words that I won’t repeat. They were supposed to be eating their breakfast, which had been delivered in two large crates. Fabiola gave me a breakfast pack, too. It included yogurt, a muffin, arequipe, and peanuts. Several students wanted to give me their package of peanuts. Others were jumping around and hitting each other.

I decided to leave. I was too big of a distraction. I walked back to the blacktop and watched some young guys play soccer. A few minutes later all the students were outside, running around on the playground below. I took a few more photos, but they were too hyper and several boys wouldn’t let me take a photo as they kept jumping in front of my camera. Two girls asked me for my autograph. I found it kind of amusing since nobody has ever asked me for that, so I gladly signed on the small grocery receipts that they handed me. I don’t think they receive too many visitors. As I left, I thought about what it would be like to be a school teacher there. Whatever they are paid, it isn’t enough.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Observations of Bogotá (Part II)

Like America, Colombia is very diverse in terms of race. And like America, the racial makeup of the locals often depends on what city or region you are in. Here in Bogotá, the vast majority of people have white skin, either because they are descendants of white Europeans or because they are mestizos (a mixture of Amerindian and white European descendants). There are fewer blacks than in many other areas of Colombia, such as the Caribbean coast. Most of the descendants of African slaves still reside on the coast and haven’t migrated as far inland as Bogotá.

Because Bogotá is so homogeneous and has a very small foreign population (I rarely ever notice a foreign-looking person), race is not a huge issue. It is probably easier being white than black in Bogotá simply because you don’t stick out so much. Then again, I am white and I stick out because I have blond hair and blue eyes. This is a big hit with Colombians, who seem to be very attracted to a person of the opposite sex who has light-colored eyes and blond hair. Most Colombians have black hair and brown eyes.

I was at a party last night at a friend’s house, and I was talking to a young Canadian man who had recently married a young Colombian woman. At one point we talked about safety in Bogotá, and how we both felt safer here than in many of the cities in North America. However, safety is probably the first thing many gringos think about when Colombia is mentioned. I just went to the website Poorbuthappy Colombia, and searched “safety in Colombia,” and 2,960 forum posts popped up. So obviously there is a lot I can write about safety, but I am going to be brief and get to the bottom line.

Colombia as a whole is a very safe country. It was not like this 15 years ago. Since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, he has sent the guerillas packing. Now the major cities and roads are very safe. Certain areas in the countryside and amazon jungle are where the guerillas reside and hold hostages that they have kidnapped. Almost all Colombians live in the western half of the country. Kidnappings are extremely rare in Colombian cities, just as they are extremely rare in American cities. I don’t know anyone who has been kidnapped in Bogota in the past few years. I definitely feel safer in Bogotá than Chicago. I have walked around Ciudad Bolívar, the largest and poorest region of Bogotá, at night without any reason for concern or fear. I was once in a very poor neighborhood in Chicago, called Cottage Grove, at night. I went to a gas station because it was the only lit area around. A guy pulled up in an old Cadillac and told me he’d give me a ride anywhere I wanted if I bought him gas. I felt very uncomfortable and left immediately, never to return to that neighborhood. I haven’t experienced anything like this in Bogotá. There are so many military and paramilitary troops, armed with machine guns, patrolling the streets that it is really difficult to commit a violent crime and get away with it. Yet Colombia is still perceived as a dangerous country because it was dangerous in the past. Though it has changed for the better, it still can't shake its old reputation because Colombia doesn't have many tourists (and those that visit usually stay on the beaches in Cartagena and Santa Marta and don't get a feel for the real Colombia), and the mass media continues to report on the rare kidnappings and guerilla violence tied to the cocaine trade. I invite foreigners to come to Colombia and see for themselves. The weather is beautiful and so are the women ... which brings me to my next topic.

You don’t need to pick up an issue of SoHo or turn on Muy Buenos Días to notice how good-looking many Colombian women are. Just go for a walk outside or take a ride on TransMilenio. Many foreign men I have met are here now because they met their Colombian girlfriend or wife abroad. When asked why I came to Colombia, many people assume it was because I had a girlfriend here. This was not the case, though I do have a Colombian girlfriend now.

Whenever I visit a different country, and then talk to a friend about it, they will invariably ask at some point: “How are the women?” I will try to answer this question based on my own experience and without saying anything that will get me into too much trouble.

If truth be told, the best looking women are in the cities of Medellín or Cali. I’ve heard the easiest women are in Pereira. In Bogotá, people in general are more reserved than other places. It probably has to do with the climate. In general, the warmer the weather, the warmer and more outgoing the people are. I have noticed some unique things about the women in Bogotá, or Rolas. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was the way they speak in a sing-song way. When they talk, their tone and pitch rise, especially when asking questions. It is comical and weird at the same time. It seems like an act, but it isn’t. I don’t notice it as much anymore because I’ve gotten used to it, though I still make fun of my girlfriend when she talks like that. The other thing I soon noticed was how informally they dress. My first night out to a club I saw women wearing normal jeans and shoes. Makeup and high heels are not common in Bogotá. However, in Medellín, it is the norm. I tend to prefer the natural look. In places like Medellín and Cali, there is more silicon than a Hugh Hefner party. In Bogotá, they tend to make use of what God gave them, which isn’t usually a bad thing. Over time, I’ve witnessed many other things. If you can dance salsa, you’ll attract more women. Money and status don’t seem to be as big a deal as in other places, and Bogotá women tend to be less traditional and more open-minded than women from Medellín, the second largest city. One thing I don’t like is how people are always kissing in the street. Ok, a kiss goodbye is fine. But here, they make-out for ten minutes, and it doesn’t matter where it is, who is around, or what time it is. Get a room, already. On the bright side, women are much friendlier here than in the U.S., and the good-looking women don’t carry all that attitude that is common in America.

The average worker in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital mind you, makes $8-$10 per day. Most of these jobs are retail or manual labor. Earning money on the internet is totally foreign here. Even buying things on the internet is not very common. Though the general cost of living is much cheaper than in America or Europe, it is much easier to safe money and have material possessions in the United States. A full-time English teacher makes about $400-500 per month. Even working professionals only make a $1,000 or so per month. All my money goes to rent, food, and bus transportation. I don’t have any money for anything else unless I dip into my U.S. savings. With the low salaries, it is no wonder all the buses are always packed. It is also no wonder why poor people want to go to America. In Bogotá, you have to inherit a business from your parents or know someone high up in order to earn a lot of money. There are exceptions, but very few. Otherwise, you’re in the rat race. Unemployment is very high. Jobs are hard to find. Maybe this is why many Colombians have babies and start families at such a young age. It gives them a sense of achievement and happiness that they can’t find at their jobs. Maybe this is also why so many of them are Christian. With all the corruption from the government and business executives, who can they turn to but God? Granted, there are many other reasons, many of which have to do with the culture and environment here. Still, I am a lot more thankful for the opportunities and lifestyle in America since moving to Bogotá. I am also a lot hungrier.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Why I Never Send Postcards

If you are family, or a close friend of mine there is a reason you haven’t received a postcard from me. The Colombian postal service is not reliable. The other postal services – UPS, FexEx, etc. – are outrageously expensive. I make a poor teacher’s salary. I’m sorry.

After leaving America, you realize just how efficient and trustworthy the U.S. service is. Once postcards or packages enter or leave the United States, they will be delivered in a few days. Maybe a week at most. In Colombia, this simply does not happen. If the mail arrives, you should be thankful. If you sent something valuable there is a good chance it will be stolen or not arrive at all. A letter sent from the United States Postal Service that should take under a week to arrive in Bogotá, will likely arrive a month or two later. Granted this letter probably took two or three days to get to Colombia. Then what happens to it is anyone’s guess. Colombia doesn’t have national post offices like in America. They have these service stores, such as Envía, where you can send mail with different companies and methods. I haven’t heard of Colombians ever mailing something at a post office.

Then there are the private carriers. They are reliable but just too expensive. Shipping a simple letter (just a piece of paper and nothing else) to the United States in three days or less would cost me about $15-20. A normal-sized package, might cost $100 with UPS, FedEx, or other reliable shipping companies. Some packages my mom has sent me that were supposed to be overnighted, took about three or four days. With UPS, they took a month or two. Granted, nothing was stolen, but it wasn’t the service I am used to in America. So for all those expecting a postcard, I’m sorry. I’ll just have to hand you a postcard when I return to the U.S.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Road Rage

I was listening to my headphones in my room when I heard police whistles outside my window just a little while ago. It was 5:25 p.m., the beginning of rush hour. I pulled my curtain and looked at La Septima, the street below. Several policemen were crouching down near a women in the middle of the road. Her face was covered in blood. Next to her was a motorcycle on its side and the driver was also crouching down next to her. She wasn’t moving.

Although I didn’t see the accident, it is my gut feeling that the motorcyclist was to blame. The way the people drive it is a wonder that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. Colombia has a law that requires all motorcyclists to wear a helmet and reflector vest. This law is strictly enforced. Speeding is not. Road rage is an odd part of Colombian culture. The people are generally friendly and don’t do anything really fast. Having grown up near New York City, I walk much faster than most of the people in Bogotá. However, once they get into their cars or on their motorcycles, their entire mind-set changes. Below is a response from a Canadian called Lostgringo in a forum on this topic at Poorbuthappy.com:

I have seen the same thing in Colombia but it's not reserved only to that country. The exact same thing happens right here in the Philippines. I imagine it is some kind of way to let off all that stress they keep suppressed or something. Funny but they are nice in their cars in parking lots. My reasoning for this is they are somewhat trapped. You can reach inside the car and grab them by the scruff of their neck! But on the open hiway they are the most inconsiderate bunch of aholes ..I have ever seen.

Durito it not just aimed at the gringo...they will run over old women, dogs and anything that walks or crawls across THEIR PATH. It's the same and sometimes worse with motorcycles. I would often hear about someone who was killed on their motorcycle. I would think to myself that this person had it coming. They go from 1st gear to 3rd gear in 1 BLOCK. What's up with that? They come to a stop sign and do the same thing for the next block. They don't care if little kids are playing on the street or not. And, if some little kid gets killed they are all sad and stuff. Two minutes after driving like maniacs they will be opening a door for you and saying Buenas Noches. Bloody strange if you ask me and it ain't going to change anytime soon lol.

This may sound extreme to someone who has not traveled outside the United States, but it is true. It doesn’t matter the age or gender of the person driving. They seem to all be in such a big hurry and beep for the smallest reason, many times for no reason at all. If a driver at the front of a red light does not anticipate the green light, the other cars will honk. (The traffic lights change from red to yellow to green.) Even while this poor woman was lying in the middle of the road with a bloody head while police directed traffic, cars were still honking. They were upset they had to slow down to pass by in a single lane.

Thankfully, she was alive as I saw her raise her bloodied hand while the police and others talked to her. Two ambulances arrived about ten minutes later and carried her away in a stretcher. Once the ambulances left, the street was back to normal. I then left my apartment and walked along the sidewalk. I could see a blood stain in the road as cars zoomed over it.