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Bogota or Bust: My First Days in Bogota

September 20, 2011

Within 3 days of arriving in Bogota, I had a blood test, was finger-printed and found myself running through one of the most dangerous
neighbourhoods in Bogota. There was never any question that Colombia would be exciting, and my first days in Bogota did not disappoint!

After only a few days here, if I were asked to describe Colombia in one word it would be: exciting! Whether negative or positive, there
is always an incomprehensible amount of action in this country.  The Colombian people have been extremely helpful and caring and have made my arrival in Colombia extremely smooth.  Knock on wood, but I never would have expected moving to Colombia to be so easy! That said, the first days were not without their frightening moments.

I was a little nervous preparing for Colombia as I had only just gone through the same process (moving to a new country, finding somewhere
to live, etc.) the year before when I had begun looking for places to live in Switzerland five months before my arrival in that country.  Last year, I had an extremely difficult time and finally found temporary accommodation only thanks to some good karma from having volunteered with Children’s International Summer Villages (CISV), when someone from CISV Switzerland agreed to take me in temporarily (I was officially
“homeless” for more than two months, but was saved again by an extremely generous Canadian family!). Needless to say I was apprehensive.  However, my experience with Colombia could not have been more different, within a week of starting my search  I had two apartments and unbeknownst to me, two pick-ups from the airport without even asking….this time was going to be different!

My actual arrival in Bogota could not have gone any smoother, my roommates Clara and Lucas were there yelling and waving as soon as
I got off the plane.  My office had also sent someone to pick me up, sorry again Alejandro! That night we had a nice chat in my new home, a lovely apartment in la Soledad neighbourhood and the following morning they prepared a welcome brunch for me.

Bogota Day 1:

Clara and Lucas graciously offered to tour me around the city for my first day in Bogota.  A local radio station was presenting an afternoon concert of various bands.  We headed to the centre to check it out. We settled into the crowd for the outdoor concert. I was feeling very old.  People were all in leather, ripped jeans, combat boots, etc.  I took off my glasses and tried to channel my long lost fourteen year-old Bad-Religion-obsessed self but doubt I really fooled anyone.  There was one particularly interesting pair in front of us, one had his face painted white, had made some seriously scary clothing choices, and both were piercing their skin to put ink inside it as tattoos. The first couple bands were okay, again, channelling old self at Lagwagon gigs at the market in Fredericton.  But then things got serious, the ink guy ran up to the stage and was visibly
excited and we knew we should be worried. Everything went dark, including the sky (seriously, huge rain clouds appeared), and four or five huge men emerged, painted head to toe in white and black make-up, with massive fake nails, the lead “singer” with some kind of blade attached to his hand and they all started screaming into their microphones.  The crowd went wild. The skies opened up. It began pouring rain down on us.  I tried to be cool. I really did.  But we only lasted about ten minutes and then decided to leave. On our walk out I turned to Clara and Lucas and said: “Well,  if I wasn’t scared of Colombia before, I am now!”


Bogota Day 2: Fun with Immigration

The following day went surprisingly smoothly.  This was my “errands” day so I was prepared for frustration. I had to find “DAS”, the Colombian department of immigration, to trade in my visa for a residency permit.  First adventure of the day was riding on the back of Lucas’ motorbike on
the highway: welcome to Colombia!

The immigration process actually went surprisingly smoothly, luckily I had extensive training in immigration matters dealing with the Swiss government last year. There were many steps to be followed to get my Colombian government-issued I.D. (not something I every really expected to have!), including having a blood test and being finger-printed.  However, everyone was extremely helpful and
after five hours of Amazing-Race-like procedures, my application was in and I was on my way to the Canadian embassy to register.

Given how smoothly everything had gone all day I decided to take my chances with the elusive “mini-buses” to get home.  There are no bus stops here, you just stand on the side of the road and wave down the bus you want (meaning you need to know which bus you want). Amazingly, the first bus I flagged down went right by my neighbourhood.  I didn’t know exactly how the system worked but immediately I had three fellow bus-riders sitting with me discussing my options for drop-off points.  In the end one of them got off with me and walked me halfway home until a point where I recognized where I was. So far the Colombian people have been absolutely amazing, and the best part is they keep telling me how “cold” people are here in Bogota and telling me how much more helpful everyone will be when I get out of the capital!

Day 3: Mission: Locate ONIC Offices in La Candelaria (the Old Town)

Feeling extremely confident with my success at finding everything  and crossing town in a mini-bus on my own the day
before, I decided to attempt the “TransMilennio” public transport system…this is Bogota’s answer to a subway (metro), it is a high-speed commuter bus-tram, so complicated the Lonely Planet warns against using it but then provides extensive instructions just in case.
This was a disaster.  I won’t go into details but even following specific instructions and remaining on high alert I ended up on a bus that for some reason skipped five stops (even though it was marked “Facil” (easy), which is supposed to stop at every stop. It did not stop at every stop, nor was it “facil”. ) and I ended up on the completely opposite side of town vowing never to ride the TransMilennio again.

I finally made my way to the Candelaria and settled into a wonderful little restaurant near the main square.  I ordered a Bandeja Paisa, a huge traditional platter that consists of rice, egg, sausage, chicharonnes (fried pork rinds), beans, avocado, and fried plaintains.

Fueled by my platter of protein and in consideration of my
morning adventures with public transport, I made the somewhat ill-advised
decision to walk home…

A Leisurely Stroll through Santa Fe

During my preparations for this programme I spoke with many people who were either Colombian or had been to Colombia and each one provided one of two opinions; some version of “Oh my God, Colombia is dangerous” and “never EVER get in a taxi in Bogota” or “Colombia is safe now, no worries, it is not the old Colombia”.  In an effort to be open minded and positive I went with the latter. However, I quickly learned that neither of those reactions were completely true and that the “new” Colombia falls somewhere in between. Yes, I am sure it is not the “old” Colombia, but veer off the faint traveller trail for even a moment and you quickly learn that what people see while travelling and while living in Colombia are two completely distinct things. I learned this lesson quickly during this walk home.  I did some investigating on the map and saw I could walk directly up 13th Avenue, the home of my beloved TransMilennio. Now I assumed that since this bus was always full of people, this street would be a safe bet…but I quickly learned I was very wrong.  I started up 13th and really it was pretty deserted, the farther north I went, the more deserted and sketchy it got.  Since my neighbourhood was north-west, I decided to veer west and look for a better option. This is when things got interesting.  Instead of getting better it only got worse but by the time I realized this it was too late to turn back.  Constant construction did not help and I kept ending up being funnelled into secluded sections of the neighbourhood.  I started going by open doors with seemingly sketchy deals taking place, then more doors with women in extremely short skirts standing out front…but then I looked again and sure enough, I was the only woman to be found, those were not women, although they had obviously had
some impressive chest-work done to fool the less observant.  I started walking faster and faster and eventually was in such a precarious situation I started talking out loud to myself “Get yourself out of here Allison, GET yourself out of here”.  At this point almost running, I emerged on the other side to yet another secluded street under construction but with fewer illicit deals. After about 15 minutes I emerged into a much safer area and made my way home.  When I arrived home and explained where I’d been, my roommate told me I had just walked through Santa Fe, one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in Bogota, one that no one ever went to.  This became the joke around the office the next few days; I’d only been in Bogota for 3 days and had already visited Santa Fe.  So I learned my lesson to take Colombia seriously, and have since been much more prudent.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Christina permalink
    October 26, 2011 4:24 pm

    Wow! Glad you made it back in one piece. At least you aren’t bored…

  2. Julia L permalink
    October 27, 2011 1:25 am

    Exciting!!!! Continue de nous donner des nouvelles Allison, c’est très intéressant! Profite bien et prends soin de toi 🙂

  3. October 27, 2011 2:22 am

    Glad your blog is up and running! I can’t wait to see more pictures of Colombia!

  4. Sarah Corey permalink
    October 27, 2011 7:53 am

    The best part is, when I read this I can hear you telling the story and see you talking to yourself: priceless. I hope everything will go smoothly from here out, but either way I know you will have some great stories when you come home. Love you…xoxo Sarah

  5. October 27, 2011 8:16 pm

    are you trying to give me a heart-attack? stay safe missy!

  6. Tammy (Hickey) Collins permalink
    November 29, 2011 8:44 pm

    I can see why you wouldn’t want your dad to read this one!! 🙂 I love reading your blog, I find it SO very interesting! I believe you are living the dream, at the very least YOUR dream and that is what is important! I will be keeping an eye on facebook for more blog notifications! Keep up the great work, and for heavens sake, be safe! 🙂

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