Thursday, December 13, 2007


I have spoken to my wife about this although not in as much detail as I will discuss here. But, I want to make clear that she knows and understands the depth of my feelings on this issue, if not all of the specific reasons for these feelings.

Throughout my life, I have always enjoyed, relished even the opportunity to experience new cultures and experiences. I am very adaptable and could live in most environments (although the Sahara doesn't sound particularly pleasant). That being said, I am, without doubt, completely human and fallable as are we all. And, after living in Colombia for almost 2 years, I am growing tired of it. This is not to say that I dislike Colombia. Nor is it to suggest that anything is wrong with Colombia as a country or Bogota as a city. It is only to suggest that personally, I am not enjoying life here as much as I did initially and I am increasingly beginning to experience "ancy feet". While I wonder how much my job situation (and prospects) plays into this emotional reaction, there are several factors which have played a direct role into my restlessness.

It's not always easy for a North American to live in Colombia. Never have I felt so isolated in a public place. We are targeted, analyzed, scoped out, and made to feel different. Even as a foreigner in Rome, without more than a handful of Italian words under my belt, I never felt truly isolated. I felt like integration in the culture and the society was possible. I don't feel that here. Instead I feel like a target, a mark. For a time, I have just dealt with this sensation and chalked it up to being a foreigner in a developing country not entirely accustomed to foreigners. But I have to confess, I grow tired of feeling like I'm being watched. I miss the anonymity of London.

Colombia is not a safe place to be for the incautious. I have, to date, never been robbed, mugged, accosted, or even felt to be in a threatening situation in Bogota. That's a higher personal safety mark than London. But, I am extremely cautious to the point of paranoia and I prefer to stay locked up at home rather than go out at night and put myself at risk. This strategy has prevented any type of incident but has also brought boredom and, to a greater extent, a feeling of being under siege. Not that I want to walk the streets drunk, but I miss feeling like I can walk the streets drunk or that I can take a taxi or bus on the street at night without having to worry about being mugged or abducted. Instead, I feel like the danger involved in going out at night far outweighs the reward and I generally stay shut-in.

Public services like basic utilities are a privilege. There is a permissable monthly service disruption for each major utility. I don't know what happens if they exceed those disruptions. Maybe there is a penalty. I do know, however, that I tire of not having power, or gas, or water on a frequent and regular basis. I tire of having to take cold showers every now and then, of not being able to watch TV or surf the internet, i.e., not being able to take advantage of the very services that I pay for. I'm reluctant to complain about these things as they are luxuries that vast portions of this country can not afford and will never be able to afford. But, I can't deny that I'm from a developed country and I am accustomed to a certain style of living that is, at times, at complete odds with the experience in Bogota.

Cultural isolation is not only for foreigners. There is no doubt that the language barrier contributes to my general isolation. I prefer not to watch Colombian news, for example, because after a full day of Spanish, I want to hear and converse in English. It's emotional and even though I know that I should be trying to complete my immersion, I find myself reluctant. The "why" is not entirely related to my desire for English. It's also related to the mix of violence and bubble gum news that dominates the airwaves. One moment, a story is presented on FARC attacks in a distant province while the next there's a live interview a one of the 1000 beauty pageants that never seem to end. (I'm convinced that Colombia leads the world in insurgency and beauty pageants.) This is to say, I find Colombian news to be either entirely depressing or entirely worthless at the same time. But, and here's the point, I'm not the only one. A great number of Colombians I know here, my wife included, prefer not to watch the news or stay abreast of things happening in their country. It's almost safer emotionally to just ignore the corruption, violence, and ongoing scandals that threaten the very existence of the country. To me, it speaks volumes about where a country is when vast tracts of the upper classes prefer not to know the details of their government.

Colombian culture is both warm and deadly. People hail Colombian culture as extremely warm and welcoming and there can be no doubt about that. However, sometimes I feel that there's an equal chance that a newly met acquaintance could as easily as drive a blade through your ribs as welcome you into his circle. This feeling is partially derived from what I've seen on TV and partially from the stories I've heard told, so its validity is an open question. But one thing is clear about Colombia - violence is more often than not the solution to a "problem". And that's not a culture I take to. I think Ingrid Betancur, kidnapped former presidential candidate, put it best when she said (paraphrasing) that Colombia has yet to decide what type of country it wants to be and until it does so, tragedy, violence, and the worst acts of depravity will continue to be the norm, not the exception.

Clean air is a luxury that cannot be afforded. The greatest daily aggravation and affectation that I experience is from the outrageous levels of air pollution that choke the beauty out of Bogota. I happen to work in what I believe is one of the most polluted corridors in Bogota and I freely acknowledge that I am unaccustomed to this level of contamination. But for more than any other reason, the pollution is what will drive me from this country. The constantly dirty hands and face, the black tar that I wipe from my nose, the constant half-colds that never seem to go away, and the noxious fumes that I often have no choice but to breath in, not to mention the long-term health effects of this type of environment, are just not something I can sustain or which to subject upon my children. Colombians, and Bogotanans in particular, seem surprised when I mention this factor but I believe that is because they are so used to the filth of industrialism that they can't imagine a city of Bogota's size that is relatively clean.

There are other factors, but these are the ones worth mentioning. Add it all up and I'm not sure where that leaves us. Our plan is to leave in Dec of '08 but part of me wonders if I'll last that long. Of course, another part thinks that once I finally am out of this job that I so despise, maybe I'll be a bit more relaxed about these things. Either way, I have doubts that we will remain in Colombia into 2009.



Blogger Apelaez said...

Im sorry, I thought colombia was a nice place. Perhaps you should relax and try to meet nice persons. Bye

2:41 PM  

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