I recently posted a two lists regarding my opinion of Bogotá, both good and bad. To say the reaction among Bogotanos was … strong … would be like saying World War II was a disagreement among statesmen. I was lauded as a brave truth teller for breaking the news that Colombia’s capital had some areas of improvement. I was called an arrogant gringo who should get to the airport on the next taxi. One emailer called me “weak” for coughing in Bogota’s pollution; others said I had the courage to say out loud what many expats only whisper when Colombians are out of earshot.
Originally published on Medium.com, in two days both posts garnered an astonishing 58,790 views (as of 8 p.m. Wednesday night) and 34,668 full reads. This blog saw a spillover increase in traffic of massive proportion. Twitter is still buzzing as I type, with the “Hate” article vastly outperforming the “Love” column. It’s been a bit overwhelming to be honest, but I was reminded of a few things:
Number 2 is obviously a bit of a “No duh,” moment, but it’s good to be reminded that one’s words have consequences. For instance, the toll of my personal life was heavy. A number of people I know, some friends, some students, basically want nothing more to do with me. Good thing I’m leaving next week!
Number 3, however, has been surprising—and humbling. These are folks who could have easily said, “Stupid gringo, serves him right!” But instead, they thought about what I wrote and said, “Hey, let’s grab coffee.” Bogotá, even as I prepare to depart, you can break my heart with surprises. Thank you.
Laura Albornoz Damme even took the time to write her own response to “10 Things to Hate About Bogotá” (Spanish). While I don’t agree with much of what she writes, I appreciate her taking the time to do so.
About the Colombian food served in Bogotá, a clarification: I like spicy food. Colombian food isn’t. Nor do I find it particularly flavorful. (Except for the fruits.) Deal with with it. I didn’t intend my article to prevent anyone from enjoying arepas and ajiaco, if that’s your thing. ¡Buen provecho! But I’ve been here a year. If I don’t like most Colombian dishes by now, I’m not going to. I don’t much like beets either, by the way.
Regarding Spanish. Man, I tried. I spent two months at Universidad Nacional and then more time in intensive private lessons trying to learn Spanish. It’s a beautiful — and fun — language, but I just could not pick it up. I can speak it OK, but I get, at best, 20 percent of what people say to me. I don’t hear all that well, and people tend to talk really fast here. It wasn’t for lack of trying that I didn’t learn Spanish as well as I would have liked. It was exhaustion and disappointment with myself. After a while I had to face the fact that I wasn’t going to get good enough, fast enough to make living here economical.
It’s easy to cheer breezy, simple writing about a place. The internet is full of “10 Great Things to Do in Bogotá” or “101 Great Things About Bolivia.” Such articles make you feel good about your hometown, and probably even attract a few tourists. That’s fine. But that’s not the kind of writer I am. I believe in telling the truth, as I see it, even if it’s unpopular or makes me the target of torches and pitchforks. I wrote the “Hate” column with the idea that maybe some people would read it and have a debate, because I believe that while Colombia has much going for it, it can also do much better. Some have questioned whether an extranjero has the right to suggest such a debate. Some suggested that all the problems I listed were well known to Colombians, and they didn’t need me pointing them out. But if they’re so well known, why does nothing change? Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is exactly what is needed.
Colombia is a country of astonishing beauty, kindness, wealth and resources. It is also one of cruelty, indifference, inequality and want. It is hardly unique in having those qualities exist side by side, but I think—because of the peace process and a growing economy—it does have a unique opportunity to decide what kind of country it’s going to be. Will it be a country locked in a feudal mindset with 80 percent of the population laboring for the cosseted 20 percent? Or will it have an educated, empowered workforce where more people prosper, class divisions are narrowed and the political left and right both have space to make their case? Will the country move ahead as a nation, or remain a patchwork of Bogotanos, Paisas, Costeñas, leftists, rightists, etc.?
I’m leaving soon, returning to the United States without a real plan for the first time in 10+ years. At least I won’t lack for material to write about. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a lot of Americans still think real estate is the best investment and more than half question the validity of the Big Bang. It’s obvious my people need me.
This last year has been frustrating and enlightening, and while I didn’t “win” at the game of Bogotá, I don’t regret playing. Vaya con Dios.
(Also published on Medium.com)