Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Always Carry Sunscreen and an Umbrella: Bogota Days

I should definitely be writing about La Paz or Lima or the jungle, but I was struck with inspiration in Bogota on my favorite kind of warm overcast day, at a charming cafe, and I just wanted to write about the city!

Bogota, Colombia is wonderful.
I made the decision to spend four days there instead of trying to squeeze in 2 here and 2 in Medellin. I really loved my experience in the Colombian central mountainous region.

The title of this post comes from something my walking tour guide said - the weather here is so unpredictable and fast changing that a good Bogotano always carries both sunscreen and an umbrella. You really do need to wear sunscreen everyday, though. The sun easily penetrates the clouds and I ended up looking like a totally unsophisticated n00b with a rosy sunburn after my first day in the city. There aren't really seasons in Bogota. The city is up in the mountains at 2,644 m (8,675 ft), and the weather is mostly defined by cycles of rain and dryness.
how to dress for Bogota (joking -
within 5 mins of being outside
scarf and jacket were off)
"The driest months are December, January, July and August. The warmest month is March, bringing a maximum of 19.7 °C (67.5 °F). The coolest nights occur in January, with an average of 7.6 °C (45.7 °F) in the city; fog is very usual in early morning, 220 days per year, whilst clear sky sunny full days are quite unusual. The official highest temperature recorded within the city limits is 30.0 °C (86 °F), and the lowest temperature recorded is −7.1 °C (19 °F). The rainiest months are April, May, September, October and November, in which typical days are mostly overcast, with low clouds and some winds, bringing maximum temperatures of 18 °C (64 °F) and lows of 7 °C (45 °F)." - Wikipedia
Don't let this forecast scare you! Bring a jacket and closed toed shoes, and you can have a lovely time in Bogota. It's no Medellin, "city of eternal spring," but you can definitely work up some heat traipsing up and down the city's hills!

The people of my South American journey just keep getting more open the further north I go! Bolivians, as you may be aware, were as cold to me as the weather. Peruvians in Lima were helpful and kind but not necessarily friendly en masse. Peruvians in the small jungle city of Iquitos were outgoing and warm but not aggressive. As soon as I crossed the border into Colombia, to the jungle town of Leticia, I noticed the difference. *Post comparing Iquitos and Leticia coming soon!* I got the up-down looks, the stares, the comments, and by the time I got to Bogota it was in full swing. Bogotanos are charming and friendly. Despite the often chilly and drizzly weather, you can open them up easily with a big smile and an "Hola, !buenos dias! ?Como estas?" If you look confused, people will explain you anything from the type of fruit they're selling to the seasons (or lack thereof) of Bogota. They use cutesy names like mi amor, amorcito, and muñeca (doll). They always say good morning/day/evening, and you should greet them back! Except when the person greeting you is a guy driving slowly by in his car, or a pair of constructions working who whistle at you before saying it, or a creepy guy standing in the shadow of a doorway who whispers hermosa (beautiful) as you pass...those guys you can ignore. I think perhaps the more aggressive attention from men comes from the idea (see Narco Beauty below) that women are objects, not only according to men but according to women themselves who commoditize themselves, seeking a better life or in accordance with heavily prevalent standards of beauty. 
Bogotanos often get a reputation for being plain and boring compared to other parts of the country (and they may be relatively true), but compared to North Americans or western Europeans, they are full of energy, friendly to strangers, and most people are excited to strike up a conversation with a foreigner. 

A hot cup of aromatica is perfect on a cold Bogota night

Narco Beauty
We can't talk about Colombia without mentioning two of the most prevalent stereotypes: drugs and beautiful women. Colombian women are often characterized by their beauty - their voluptuous figures, their daring necklines, skin tight clothing, and the prevalence of plastic surgery. Stemming from the drug related violence of the 1970s and 1980s, a culture of narco beauty dominates the country's fashion and beauty industry. The drug lords who dominated the economy favored a certain kind of women - big boobs, fat booty, tiny waist, light skin. The women who gained the attention of traffickers were pampered and protected. At this time of violence and unpredictability and widespread poverty, this was a coveted prize. So women squeezed themselves into the standards of narco beauty in the hopes of achieving some degree of comfort or protection for themselves and their families.

“Contemporary society has told the woman that everything lies in her body. They themselves assume their role as an object … They want to have the body that is desired, otherwise it won’t have people providing them with economic prospects.”

Some examples of the influence of narco beauty standards:
  • Plastic surgery here is some of the cheapest in the world - a boob job can go for around $1000 - and it's both common among Colombians and for medical tourism.
  • In some cities (markedly Cali and Medellin) girls are gifted plastic surgery (generally breast implants) for their 15th birthday.
  • When a family has a beautiful daughter and "invests" in her beauty through surgeries and expensive clothing and makeup, they often expect a return by her marrying a wealthier man, raising the status of the family. In rural areas, it's still common that young brides have a bride price that is often paid in livestock.
  • Much more than in the US or other countries, "alternative" looking women are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to finding work. The definition of alternative is broader here, encompassing not only tattoos and piercings but also more natural looking women and women who don't take much interest in fashion or beauty.
  • A style of jeans called "sin bolsilllos" (without pockets) is very popular. These jeans don't have back pockets and often incorporate strategic shading to make the wearer's butt look as plump and perky as possible.

  • The commodotization of women and women's bodies makes many men feel like they have the right to common on women, to call out as they pass, and, in the extreme cases of actual drug traffickers, kidnap (or lure) women out of small towns and villages to be operated on and turned into their personal toy.
The women of Bogota are noticeably less influenced by these narco beauty standards than in other cities. As guerilla forces took over the jungles and farmland, many farmers were forced to either work for the guerillas or flee - and most who fled ended up in the capital. The outskirts of Bogota were soon choked with poor farmers and their families from all over the country, creating a more diverse and more practical city. A Bogotana friend of mine told me that women from the capital are often mocked for being too "simple" - not wearing enough makeup, not wearing fashionable enough clothing, not investing enough into their beauty. The excellent education (public and private) and greater number of professional and economic opportunities in this metropolis of 8-10 million people (number vary) also provides many women another option to prosperity than their bodies.

Bogota is a huge city and there are too many barrios (neighborhoods) to count, so I'll just mention a few here. The most popular barrios among tourists/ex-pats, and most accessible, are probably La Candelaria, Chapinero, and La Zona Rosa.

La Candelaria is basically the furthest south of the barrios (further south you have Tunjuelito, Usme, and San Cristobal - mostly poor residential neighborhoods). You can stroll up and down the hills of La Candelaria for hours. 
This is oldest part of the city, made obvious by its narrow cobblestone streets and colonial facades. The upper half of La Candelaria is stuffed with hostels, so this is where most backpackers stay. There are also several boutique hotels for the more discerning visitor. Here is where you'll find the Museo del Oro (the best gold museum in South America), several government buildings like the Palace of Justice that has been infamously blown up three times by guerillas, and the lively pedestrian section of Carrera 7 (or just la septima as the locals call it).
There are seemingly endless bars, restaurants, lounges, and boutiques, most pretty modern and nice - I wondered how they all could simultaneously stay in business. The entire barrio is covered in beautiful street art (learn about it before the new mayor power washes it all away on the Graffiti Tour if you can stomach being part of a 50 person tour with a microphoned guide - pics at the end of this post!). Even the amateur graffiti tags are usually a little bit artistic - nothing like the rough scrawls of, say, La Paz...

Plaza Bolivar in La Candelaria

A couple dancing the tango on Septima

Shoe shiners are the neighborhood gossips in Bogota

Street performers on Septima

View of Monserrate

a quiet morning

From La Candelaria, you can walk north (about an hour and a half, sort of interesting if you slide around the side roads but if you're on Carrera 7, which is the most direct route, it's mostly just concrete buildings and bus exhaust apart from the large, green Parque Nacional Enrique Olaya Herrera and the line of gorgeous European style houses right before it) to Chapinero

those unexpected European style houses
Parque Herrera

Chapinero is less about historical charm and more about trendy bars, impressive restaurants, and a hipster meets street kid vibe. If I lived in Bogota, I'd probably try to live here. It's really cool and definitely worth checking out. If you can go to one neighborhood outside La Candelaria, I recommend Chapinero.

Chapinero at night

A young guy selling his work on the street in Chapinero

Continuing north a bit, there is La Zona Rosa. One of the hottest spots for Bogota nightlife, I went out here and had a blast. Make sure you look sharp, though, because most of the bars and clubs here are more on the preppy side. The nightlife people watching is also excellent. If you're in the mood to shop, there are two large malls here - Andino and Atlantis.

Even more north (yes, this city goes on forever) is Usaquen. Lots of expats live in swanky apartments up here. There is also apparently a cool market on Sundays that you should try to hit if you're in town. Usaquen used to be a separate village and it still has a quaint villagey feel.

Bonus Points
You'll see everywhere written "Bogotá, D.C." I came up with dozens of potential things that the D.C. could stand for - District of Columbia (hell, I don't know why Washington DC is called that, why couldn't another American city have the same moniker?), Bogota D(epartament), of C(olombia), something to do with colonial times, something to do with the civil war? The reality is that D.C. is Distrito Capital (capital district) which really makes plenty of sense.

As with most countries, people here run on their own schedule. "Colombian time" is usually 10-15 mins late. I had a hair appointment at 11, my stylist arrived at 11:20. I was supposed to meet a Colombian friend at 7, and I was running late - I arrived at 7:10 and she hadn't even texted me to ask where I was. The free walking tours always start late as a courtesy to those running on Colombian time.

A phrase you'll here a lot on the street is "a la orden" literally "to the order" and better translated as "at your command." It's used in the military and by vendors of all sorts. If you walk by anyone selling something, chances are they'll shout an a la orden to you as a way to invite you into their business and show that they are ready to assist you with fulfilling your gastronomical or material desires "con gusto." It's so common that people don't really consider their words when they say it, but as my walking tour guide explained, the roots of the phrase go back to the colonial masters of Colombia's indigenous and mestizo population. Another rather subservient phrase your might hear is "para servirle" - to serve you/at your service.

and finally, some pics from the graffiti tour: 

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