Sitting in my living room, checking email and preparing for the week ahead, I glanced up to see a perfect rainbow forming over the mountains. Five minutes later, it was gone. A friendly reminder from the skies that while these ten weeks are filled with meetings, excel spreadsheets, and everyday tasks, I must not take for granted this unique opportunity to spend a summer living and learning in Colombia.
As I finish up my second full week here in Bogotá, I wanted to take a moment to share some reflections and “lessons learned.”
1. You can drink the water.
While Colombia has its fair share of development challenges and has been particularly affected by the armed conflict, Colombians are eager to show what works and disprove assumptions. In Bogotá, you can drink the water, you don’t need a yellow fever vaccine, and (though sometimes a bit more expensive) you can buy virtually any product you’d find in the U.S. Here comes the huge asterisk (*) that conditions vary widely throughout the country, and there are still areas closed to tourism as well as regions where, as a colleague told me about a regional capital he travels to for work, it’s near impossible to find anything not produced locally because the road to the nearest major city is not fully paved. If anything, I’ve come to believe that the “top of the pyramid” here is the same as in the U.S., but the bottom goes much lower.
2. You must “legalizar” your phone.
My self-congratulations at successfully purchasing and operating a Colombian SIM card was quickly dampened when I discovered almost a week later that I had failed to prove that my phone (purchased in the U.S.) was mine, and not stolen, and therefore was blocked from the cell network. In addition to my frustration with the bureaucracy that a) required this process b) failed to inform me of the process and c) incorrectly input my information, leading to further delays, it made me think about the reasoning behind such a system. Colombia does indeed have one of the highest rates of mobile theft, but research shows that registries are not necessarily an effective means of combatting this, in part because thieves can alter the IMEI (unique identifier) of the phone. My gringa complaints aside, this can be a real problem for people who don’t have the documentation or access necessary for registration, making connectivity unnecessarily difficult.
3. Pitillo = straw.
I learned from my time in Chile that every Spanish-speaking country has its own vocabulary, and Colombia is no exception. While asking for a straw (“bombilla” in Chile), I was inadvertently requesting a light bulb for my juice. Other favorites include “dar papaya” = the opposite of staying under the radar, perico = coffee with milk (versus tinto = black coffee or red wine), and “qué más” = how’s it going.
4. Bring an umbrella, even if it’s not supposed to rain.
At more than 8,000 feet above sea level, Bogotá’s climate consistently averages 65 degrees Fahrenheit everyday, but with a variance of 10 degrees in both directions, every day. As one Bogotano told me, this is the city where you should leave the house with both sunglasses and an umbrella. On the plus side, these are excellent conditions for rainbows!
5. Take Google maps travel times and double.
Trancones (traffic jams) in Bogotá are a real issue, and I learned from my short visit in March that if at all possible, I wanted to be walking distance to the office. Bogotá is perhaps one of the only capital cities with no metro system (depending who you ask, for political or geographic reasons), and it’s not unheard of for people to commute two to three hours each way every day to work. Air quality in Bogotá now ranks below Mexico City, and if I had to make a public policy bet, transportation is going to make or break this city.
And don't forget to look for rainbows.