Cloe, studying abroad at Universidad de Los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia.
With a deviously good splattering of street art across most of the walls, some of the most helpful and willing humans on the planet and an increasing amount of investment being pumped into the city, it seems as though Bogotá is the place to be right now. Although I realise this sounds like the opening page from a Lonely Planet guide to Colombia, most of the country and especially the capital really has shaken off its image as a place of violence and kidnappings. I won’t emit the word ‘drugs’, and I certainly won’t sugar coat it; the destitution and despair of many of the people here shocks and saddens me on a daily basis. There are red light districts (though not with the touristic appeal of Amsterdam), an area called El Bronx, which I regret to say, is far scarier than its North American namesake, and run-down shanty towns in the south of the city. Barely any social support makes for a sad scene in many ways, but the rest of the marvellous city, culture and people counteract the troublesome stereotype in an explosion of salsa, 25p beer, laughter, and hard work (which can also be translated as camellar, literally ‘to camel’. Don’t ask why because I don’t know either).
It’s not the entire city that is like this: heading north from the poorer, tourist and student areas, you find tree-lined avenues, boutiques, and restaurants where brunch for two may cost you more than in London. Although you can walk around texting on your mobile and drink craft beer whilst munching on baguettes in parallel with Parisian ones, the north of the city lacks the vibrancy and energy of the painted lanes of the Candelaria, the historical district and a graffiti artist’s paradise. Interestingly enough, the chaos of Bogotá and Colombia generally is conducive to a fairly easy settling-in experience. You can set up a phone contract in a matter of minutes, sort a flat without the hassle of deposits or contracts, and open a bank account from start to finish within the same day.
The university, one of the city’s 112, according to good old Wikipedia, is without doubt the most well-equipped, architecturally harmonic campuses I’ve ever had the pleasure of setting foot on. Everything is connected, the hardworking students are happy, and there are restaurants on every corner. They hold around one themed event per week – last week was environment awareness, and Jane Goodall came to speak. It was also the university’s birthday, and to celebrate the big 6-7, they hired a cupcake company to freely distribute 6000 cupcakes to us poor stressed students. University teaching in Colombia came as a shock, as I am graciously told at the start of term that we may have mini quizzes, worksheets and videos to watch. The register was the final straw: I am back at school. The upside of this is that you actually do the readings, and the final exams are less stressful as you’ve already done the bulk of the work over the term. The downside? Thinking that you’re winning at life upon sleepily entering the library at 7am on a Monday morning in September, you find that the first floor is already full of Colombians hustling away. Oops.
Although a metropolis such as Bogotá is bound to have an array of multicultural restaurants and supermarkets with imported manchego cheese and French tapenade, they are concentrated in the north (the areas Zona G, Zona T and Rosales) and are not at all representative of the kind of flavours Colombians use in their food. It is, quite simply put, carbohydrates, fat and meat, with a side of any fruit juice you could desire in your wildest tropical dreams, to compensate for the transition to the carnivore you are about to become. Guanabana, for example, as quite accurately described by a friend like a large green dragon’s egg, tastes of a creamy strawberry with a hint of acidity. The national drink is called aguardiente (or guaro, to the Bogotanos, aka Rolos) and it is a horrifying blend of sugar and aniseed which you take in shots of 29%. Unsuprisingly, mixed with the altitude (Bogotá is at 2600m), you wake up feeling enguayabado. Guayabo literally translates to the tree of the guava, but also denotes the hangover that Rolos must be all too used to.
Cars beeping, people wailing with joy outside your window… Those are the sounds of a Colombian gooooooool, even if it’s just a friendly with Uruguay. You notice first thing in the morning, upon leaving the house, that a third of the population are sporting yellow camisetas; at work, in class. Every match has the engagement and anticipation of a world cup match in England. Like the shirts, yellow seems to be an appropriate colour to describe my Colombian experience. Firstly it’s the colour of Universidad de Los Andes (shortened to Los Andes or Uniandes), my university’s motif. It will not surprise you to know that it’s also the colour of the little taxis, which make up half of the city’s horse power and scuttle around to the beck and call of various different apps on your mobile. Yellow symbolises caution, which goes without saying (a popular piece of advice that Colombians will tell you in order to stay safe is no des papaya, don’t give away your papaya, a less literal translation being don’t flash your cash). But yellow also means energy and fun, which is exactly what you sign up for when you go out to rumba on a Friday night. Lastly, the oddest observation that I’ve made here has been the abundance of yellow trousers, which is a story for another time.
Though the spirit of Pablo Escobar’s legacy still lingers in many respects – Colombians do not remotely enjoy jokes about cocaine, or their country being home to kidnappings, a relatively recent memory for many – pride of their wonderfully comprehensible Spanish, open and fun-loving culture and their beautiful and kind people supersedes the dark stain of the last forty years.
Photographs: Guanabana courtesy of tukifruits.com
All others author’s own.