I have to admit: my relationship with Bogota has not been love at first sight. It’s taken work, patience, and understanding. And as I’m sure most of my ex-boyfriends will tell you, I haven’t always been the most patient, or understanding, girlfriend.
My family shares the same sentiment. So when they came to visit a couple of weeks ago, I took them to my favorite place for a Saturday morning in Bogota: La Plaza de Mercado de Paloquemao. Although not present in many of the guide books, nor listed as a top thing to do online, this bustling, chaotic flower and food market was the first thing to make me fall in love with the city.
My friends below looked like miniature action figures as I tightened my grip on a sharp, protruding rock.
“That’s it, you’re almost there!” shouted my climbing instructor, Hugo Rocha.
Almost there? Is he kidding?
“I think I’m fine to come down now!” I yelled. But Hugo ignored me. “Focus on your feet and push with your legs. You have this, Jennifer!”
Grunting a string of obscenities, I looked for the next groove to place my right foot. Then my left. My fingers trembled as I reached toward the sky.
I thought I’d be better at this. I had scaled the man-made rock-climbing wall at the gym in record time. I had hiked Cerro Fitz Roy over Christmas vacation. I was even halfway through the aptly named Insanity workout DVDs.
But nothing prepared me for the emotion and eventual exhilaration I felt climbing straight up 125 meters, relying on a rope for survival.
Hugo Rocha thrives on that feeling. He does it every day.
“To be in nature,” he says, “with a wall in front of you…to get to the top without falling…it’s nice in the end.”
He’s right, although you couldn’t have convinced me of that half way up the rock. But after finally reaching the top, I understood the reward as I scanned the green landscape and listened to the cheers from below.
I found Hugo’s name while reading in the Lonely Planet about Suesca, a sleepy town about an hour from Bogotá. The short blurb said Hugo was reliable to conduct inexpensive half-day and full-day rock climbing excursions.
It ought to be easy to round up some fellow adventurers, I figured. Wrong. Fellow workers ignored my email, so I posted a Facebook status. Only one person responded, and I had only met her once. She said she would bring two friends. They had all grown up near Bogotá but had never been to the village, never been rock-climbing.
Hugo, in contrast, spent his youth in Bogotá and scaled trees and roofs routinely before moving to Suesca 12 years ago. He had been an industrial design major in college, but left the city life to explore the 400 different climbing routes. He even met his girlfriend while climbing.
“If a climber is traveling in Colombia, they’re going to pass through Suesca,” he said.
For the novice looking for a weekend adventure, making it to the top is the obvious goal. But for me, the experience offered so much more – a bonding friendship. After three climbs, we headed to a nearby tienda and celebrated over beers. Filled with a sense of accomplishment, we drank, danced and cartwheeled in the sun while Hugo packed up the equipment.
Our bodies sore, our hands scratched, we made the quick trip back to Bogotá, satisfied that from a sky-high vantage point, we had broadened our horizon.
Some Suesca facts: Rock climbing costs $60,000 pesos per person for a half day or $120,000 for a full day. Buses to Suesca depart from the TransMilenio Portal Norte on the Autopista. A one-way ticket costs 7,000 pesos. To join Hugo Rocho on the ropes, contact him: email@example.com
But, according to my Colombian friends, the past couple months have only been preparation for the real Christmas season, which didn’t officially start until this past Friday, on Día de las Velitas.
Translating to “Day of the Candles,” Día de las Velitas is one of the most observed holidays in Colombia. It’s the eve of the Immaculate Conception, which is the day Catholics believe the Virgin Mary was conceived and kept free of original sin. To honor Mary, people place candles and paper lanterns on their balconies, windowsills, and in parks and squares.
Here are some pictures from what was going on in Parque Virrey and Parque 93:
I have a variation of the same conversation every day with my doorman. We exchange hellos, then we say how we’re feeling. Given I usually see him at 6:25 am and then again when I return from work, my response is usually “Estoy muy cansada.” I am tired.
Depending on the day of the week, he replies with (in Spanish), “Yes, very tired, of course. It’s Monday.” Or, “Yes, very tired, but it’s almost Friday.”
Today, he responded, “It’s okay because it’s Juernes!”
Juernes is a combination of the words Thursday (Jueves) and Friday (Viernes). At first I thought it was a Colombian saying similar to our “TGIF,” but after living here for two months, I’ve realized it’s just another excuse to party.
It starts on Wednesday. Every hump day, my upstairs neighbor has her girlfriends over. At 8pm the salsa music begins. At 8:30, I hear the clacking of heels on my ceiling. And from about 9pm to one in the morning, I hear them “woooooing” out on the terrace.
Thursday, before class starts, I hear my students talking about all the parties that are happening over the weekend. The boys talk about who they want to make out with and how drunk they’re going to get, and the girls talk about how they’re going to get their hair done and what they’re going to wear. Teaching is difficult.
Then there’s Friday. Reggaeton music pounds through outdoor speakers at lunch time and kids from all grades swarm the cafeteria, shoveling food into their mouths as quickly as possible so they can go dance with friends. The music continues to blast until school lets out at 3:10. If you have class after lunch, you’re screwed.
When I get home at 3:45, my doorman already has the door open, and is salsa dancing with an imaginary woman. A smile takes over his face as he shouts, “Señorita Jennifer! Es Viernes! Que rumba?” He tells me he hopes I’m going out dancing and drinking lots of beer. He also tells me I’ll have a hangover on Saturday and Sunday.
This Friday (tomorrow) will be extra crazy—student council is throwing an “end of the summer picnic party,” complete with hotdogs and hamburgers for lunch. Students won’t have to wear uniforms, and there’s even a mango stand outside the cafeteria (think snow cones but with shredded mango instead of ice).
At the beginning of the school year, I would have fought the kids and tried to teach them something. But tomorrow I plan on showing funny YouTube videos.
I also plan on dancing with my doorman at 3:45, and living my weekend like the Colombians do.
Then Monday will come, and the dialogue with my portero will start all over again.
Unfortunately, in both situations, things are usually a bit gloomy. So it’s critical to always be prepared: lots of layers, an umbrella, and most importantly, a positive attitude.
When I woke up this morning, rays of sunshine peaked through the window. My usual nighttime uniform of flannel pajamas and thermal socks felt unnecessary. (Side note: apartments here don’t come with heat or air conditioning. The average temperature of 55 degrees doesn’t require either.)
Knowing I only had an hour or two to enjoy the balmy weather, I quickly changed into running clothes and headed for a park about a 20-minute walk from my apartment.
When I got to Parque El Virrey, I stopped into Juan Valdez, Colombia’s answer to Starbucks. The next hour was spent watching parents treat their kids to balloons, dogs playing fetch, and women, with full hair and makeup, rollerblading. I sipped my cappuccino and took in my surroundings.
When asked how I like Bogotá, sometimes it’s hard to answer. The language barrier has been difficult. The city is polluted and crowded with buses and taxis. The gap between rich and poor in painfully apparent. But on a day like today, when the sun in shining and I have nothing to do but drink coffee, it’s nice.
My pace quickened, but several blocks later I found myself at a traffic light, next to a woman selling fragrant tiger lilies. She held out a bouquet for me to smell and smiled. She was missing most of her teeth.
I bought the flowers and continued walking. The woman yelled after me in a strained, hoarse voice, and told me to have a wonderful day. I stopped and waved to her, telling her to do the same.
Her hair was already soaked and so were her clothes. But she was still wearing that beautiful, toothless smile.
I gasped for air and kept peddling, my head down so the spinning instructor wouldn’t see me laughing.
“Is it just me, or is he doing a sexy dance on top of the bike?” my friend Kari said on the bicycle next to me.
In the dark room, a spotlight highlighted the instructor’s deep-set eyes as he stared out into his audience. Beads of sweat rolled down his neck. He turned up the electronic salsa music and increased the resistance on his bike. His hips were thrusting back and forth as he shouted, “uno, dos, tres!”
Kari and I laughed about it the whole walk home.
This is just one example of the sexual nature of Colombian men—or the sexual undertone that envelops the city of Bogotá, my new home.
At restaurants, couples sit next to each other instead of across—kissing one another’s necks and lips in between bites of food. Young lovers can be found making out on stairwells outside department stores and on street corners. Everyone can dance salsa.
Just three days after landing in my new city I met a Colombian guy named Santiago. A casual meeting in the park turned into a hike to Monserrate, hot coco at a restaurant overlooking Bogotá, then a bottle of wine and tapas at an outdoor café. When he dropped me off at the hotel he asked to kiss me. “I don’t know if it’s your perfume, but I’m intoxicated by you,” he said as his lips touched mine. I almost spit in his mouth.
Santi and I have been out several times since then, and every time he says something that makes me bite the sides of my cheeks to keep from laughing.
“They’re not lines,” he tells me. “I’m just telling you what I’m thinking, and I’m thinking about you.”
I admit, it’s nice to hear. And I suspect in a few months the sight of my spinning instructor gyrating on top of his bike will be commonplace. But until then, I’m going to enjoy the unbridled laughter that Bogotá brings me. And I think I’ll take Santi up on salsa lessons.