Walking Bogota, Colombia

With one more step retracing my younger self, I arrive in Bogotá. Eight million people strong, over a mile and a half high, at the foot of the most impressive mountains any city can boast, this place should intimidate anyone. Buses racing back and forth, mild adherence to sidewalk safety, a reputation for violence. For the last six and a half years, I have lived in a lazy fishing village on the mild coast of California. Bogota, Colombia? I should be terrified of this place.

I really should be. During the time I lived here in the late ’70’s, US Ambassador Diego Asencio was kidnapped and held for 61 days. Fellow Peace Corps volunteer Richard Starr had been kidnapped before I arrived, held for three years and released during my stay. At times, buses I rode stopped unannounced on the side of highways, let out all the passengers, with drivers stating that a transportation strike had been called. Fifty-odd Colombians and me, often in the dark, struck out over fields, walking miles in a direction I vaguely remembered as being toward home.

Back then, I lived in a northern barrio of Bogotá where the terrorist group M-19 had roots. When soldiers were sent to search for terrorist group members, women from the neighborhood would stand at street corners and wave people safely away from where the soldiers were patrolling. The US Embassy was barricaded downtown and I lived on the outside of its safety net.

But I simply was never afraid. This was a city that may have had political issues and over-reaching violence, but I never saw it, and to this day acknowledge my luck. Regular people lived regular lives, and I felt no threat and no personal animosity aimed at me. I bought my bread from the German bakery, I rode to work on buses – usually with no problem, I went to language school in a beautiful tree-covered neighborhood. Maybe there was a Bogotá with a different world-wide reputation. But there was also my Bogotá: long streets to walk, buses whose routine I needed to learn, spectacular cloud-filled skies, sidewalk food stalls, regular people.

And I am back for the first time in 40 years. We had stayed at the Tundama Hotel on our first night in Bogotá in June of 1978, my husband and I and over 100 other new Peace Corps volunteers. In a strange wave of sentimentality,  we had tried to find the hotel online to reserve a room and really re-live that experience. But, the Tundama is gone, and without an address, we may never know the reason why.

We stay at the Tequendama Hotel, a classic downtown business hotel where we can venture north, where we had lived, and south, where we had worked. I hope to visit other places for which I have no address. How far will my faulty memory take me?

It’s an interesting way to travel – striking out to see those idiosyncratic places that aren’t on anyone else’s list of tourist sites. We walk south on Carrera 6 and – without intending – find the old theater where we used to buy fresh-roasted potato chips to eat during the movie. It still stands there, in the middle of a city-block of buildings, but is wrapped with no-trespassing tape, and no movies are advertised. We turn toward the steep mountainside roads and walk through Parque Nacional, which is exactly as I remember it – a wild forest in the middle of an urban tangle.

From there, we step onto Carrera 7, catch a bus and visit Unicentro – the shopping center where we used to meet friends. We walk most of the long way from Unicentro to our old neighborhood. We recognize the overpasses, the view east to the mountains, and some older buildings. We catch a bus back downtown and find Avenida Caracas. We walk and walk and walk following the bus routes and past the graffitied buildings, trying and failing to find one of the children’s centers where we had worked.

But we do find a city that has built beautiful new neighborhoods and has added an impressive transportation system. We stop along Carrera 7 in an unfamiliar restaurant and eat familiar arepas and ajiaco.

Bogotá gives us a visit that helps me recall the glorious beauty of the region, the pride of the people.

But as for my personal memories – something just isn’t quite right. Maybe I can blame it on the altitude sickness that rocks me on this trip. At 8,600 feet, I feel dizzy, head-achey and muddle-minded. My own recollections seem from someone else’s life.

Who was that young woman who lived in such a challenging place? If I had had a daughter, I would have been immersed with anxiety at the thought of her experiencing the life I lived here. But it was me living in this unusual place, and I was then and still am quite normal and usual. Even in the challenge of the late 1970’s, I felt my life was routine, unremarkable.

The whole experience of going back reminds me that life, always, is just one small step at a time wherever you are.

Once again, Bogotá gives me a gift of extraordinary beauty and ordinary life.

 

 

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22 Replies to “Walking Bogota, Colombia”

  1. What a lovely memoir Susan. It must have been a wonderful experience to go back even if muddled by altitude. It sounds as if Bogota is safer now than it was.
    I was there in 78 I think it was and hardly remember a thing except the amazing gold museum. We spent a brief time in Baranquilla (the *sshole of the earth as it was known – maybe still is), and 10 days in Cartagena, and then travelled south through Sth America.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Alison. We may have passed each other on the street in 1978. We never made it to Baranquilla, but I have heard that the place has grown tremendously (not sure if that is a good or bad thing.) But Bogota – I feel oddly protective of the city, as I never really felt unsafe there, but to me, it just seems like any big city, where you shold always have a sense of awareness. Beautiful, though, with glorious weather. Cheers- Susan

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So young you all looked! Did you meet your husband through the Peace Corps, or join together, Susan? It seems such a noble thing to do, however normal you might be. You’ve brought enrichment to young lives and that’s special. I love sharing your memories and am thrilled that you’ve chosen to share them with me. Thank you so much! 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RJo – thanks so much for all your kind words. We went to Colombia as newlyweds, and often joke that with a start like that, it’s amazing we’ve lasted this long. The Peace Corps doesn’t let newlyweds join anymore (we ruined that for the newer generation, apparently!)
      Glad you got some rain for the upcoming springtime 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hugh -it’s not too late to visit Colombia! Though, I understand that we just can’t make it to each enticing place on the planet, so I am honored to have given you an eye into Colombia. I never got to Bucaramanga, but I remember people saying it was very nice.
      Cheers- Susan

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  3. What a fascinating post! I think going back to places we have lived from years gone by is always a very interesting experience ~ often bringing up memories that we might not had thought about for years. Because I have changed countries often, I have had this experience quite a few times. When I was ten we lived in Israel (in 1967 during the six day war) and recently I returned there for the first time in many many years. It was quite odd.

    We spent some time in Colombia because at the time we were building bamboo eco low cost housing in Nicaragua for indigenous populations. Colombia is of course the center of magnificent bamboo architecture. We did not spend much time in Bogota though, but were in areas where bamboo grows or there are samples of the magnificent work with bamboo.

    Terrific post.
    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peta – thanks so much for stopping by. Isn’t it amazing how the world is a classroom all by itself? Have you written of the contrast between your first stay in Israel and your second visit? Writing about Bogota was difficult for me, but helpful for bringing out some lost memories. Happy treking – Susan

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  4. Welcome back. 🙂
    I first went to Bogotá in Xmas ’78.
    We may have crossed each other on the street. 🙂
    My wife is Colombian, married in ’79. And we go back once or twice a year.
    It is much safer now.
    I hope you enjoyed your stay.
    Cheers
    Brian

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Pleasure Susan. Now changes? Beyond the obvious: highways, bridges, buildings, I was thinking last December of the relatively small changes. As compared to Asia for instance. Sometimes I fell Latin America has missed the train… (I live in Mexico, which does help for the altitude…)
        Be good.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I find this post fascinating…and so much like my experiences far back in time living in ‘dangerous places’…one day at the time and completely free of fear. It was exactly like you say: ‘your’ Bogota was not the same dangerous city the news people would write about. Loved it, Susan.

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