While 2011 was certainly the most carefree year of my adult life—what with a semester in Paris; trips to London, the Czech Republic, and Barcelona; and seven months of (f)unemployment—it was also the most uncertain. In May I finally completed my six-year Bachelors of Architecture program, but I did not know what my next step would be. I knew I wanted to work abroad, but I did not know when, where, or how. Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile each had something to offer, but which would I choose? Would any firm choose me, a recent graduate with little experience and subpar Spanish-language skills?
At the beginning of 2012, I finalized my plans to move to Bogotá—a Colombian city I chose for its size, history, and ongoing development. Unlike the suburban Texan sprawl I found myself temporarily floating in, Bogotá seemed to promise progress in the forms of public infrastructure, mass transit, and income equality. When I arrived in February, I learned that progress was not that simple, easy, or quick; decades of corruption could not be so effortlessly reversed. Bogotanos still have only one post office from which they can retrieve their international mail; they still have overcrowded, polluted buses with no firm plans to construct a subway system (Meanwhile, their neighboring city Medellín has three functioning underground lines.); and most importantly, there remains serious hostility between the richer and poorer classes. While Colombia tries to cleanse itself of its tainted image and reunite its people, the country mistakenly looks to America for guidance. In November I read this hauntingly insightful article in the New York Times which compares the increasingly private, wealthiest class of the United States to the ruling classes of developing nations:
So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.
Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!
Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.
Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!
Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!
Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!
I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country.
The “shards of glass” observation in the last sentence instantly strikes a chord. I look out the window of my estrato cuatro apartment only to see broken bottles affixed to the top layer of a brick wall. Meanwhile, my building is already equipped with two private security guards patrolling the front desk and collecting the identification cards of any unrecognized guest. There is no trust; there is no faith. And I am inclined to believe that said lack of trust and faith only encourages people to be untrustworthy. It is a cyclical mindset, and it is a dangerous one. Excessive security reminds both the protected and the unprotected of why it is in place. No one should feel unsafe in his or her own country or when surrounded by his or her own people. No one should be seen as a safeguard or as a threat based on what he or she can or cannot afford.
Due to these deep-seated trust issues, daily errands that should take seconds actually take hours. For instance, because I do not have a Colombian bank account (because, nine months into my yearlong visa, I am still not properly accounted for by Migración Colombia – Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores), I cannot pay my bills online; I cannot write a check; I must go to the bank. Each utility company has its own preferred bank, so I must multiply one hour of waiting in line by four or five bills (or banks).
Because I am not home on weekdays, I cannot receive packages at my apartment; I must travel to the only international post office in the city to retrieve it. The office is a two-hour round-trip commute via Transmilenio, plus waiting time. Of course, the Bogotá office—the office which serves the most people—is also the only office which is not open on Saturdays.
Because I am not Colombian, I cannot request internet service; I must have a friend’s name on my account. Of course, because his name is on the bill, the front desk does not always deliver it which leads to Movistar shutting off our service anyway.
Upon returning from vacation, Seth and I received a hostile letter from our water provider demanding to inspect our apartment. Because we did not use enough of their services during the month of December, they assume we must be acquiring water illegally.
Living in Colombia is not only exhausting at times, but it is also lonely. Even though I have Seth here with me, I miss spending time with my female friends (and I know he misses spending time with his male friends). While our former classmates rave about their fancy holiday galas at the Guggenheim, complete with enough bottles of Moët to make one hundred people positively bubbly, we frown at our makeshift meals of fried eggs and empanadas. We miss the little luxuries, but at the same time we realize that we are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who will never get to experience any of them.
To be honest, it is sometimes difficult for me to remember why I am here. The everyday details of this life can really bog me down, but at the same time, the big picture can really lift me up. I chose this experience; I chose this discomfort—in language, in living conditions, in relative solitude. All of it has forced me to challenge myself in ways I never thought possible, and I know I will be a stronger and more sensitive and socially aware person because of it. As Seth and I flew into Bogotá just after the start of 2013, we were astounded by the beauty of the city from above. Its textural palette of worn concrete, warm brick, lush greens, and an intensely blue sky suddenly put our woes into perspective. We won’t be here forever, and we should try to absorb everything about this place we possibly can. Cheers to another year.