One of my friends believes the diverse nature of the Colombian landscape has a direct effect on the minds of its inhabitants.
“Give a Colombian a piece of paper and ask them to draw a landscape,” he says. “A Bogotano will draw a few fields, some mountains and a little house. The whole thing will be very closed. But a Costeño will draw a broad horizon; the ocean, some palm trees and a desert island in the distance.”
My friend is a born-and-bred Bogotano but he believes Costeños (coastal folk) are naturally more broad-minded, thanks to their oceanfront environment. That, he believes, inspires them to greater levels of creativity.
“We are trapped and enclosed by the mountains. We cannot see beyond them,” he complains.
“But they look out on the ocean and limitless possibilities. Look how many creative Costeños there are; the Garcia Marquez’s, the Obregon’s…”
It’s a strange theory and one I’m sure many will disagree with (What about Juanes? And Fernando Botero? They’re mountain folk too, right?) but it is fun to consider the effects of environment on behaviour. We’re often ordered not to generalise about culture or background yet, while people may be all different, it can be so difficult to go against the controlling nature of what is all around you.
(Take the bankers, for example. I’m a bit obsessed by banking, economics and high finance, mostly because I don’t understand a word of it and it infuriates me that a world I don’t understand has had such a cataclysmic effect on my life and opportunities.
Anyway, in a bid to understand what the hell the bankers have been doing with LIBOR, I read this article. It may be old news but this quote is not: “Culture flows from structure.” Yes it does.)
I am a generaliser, an observer and I’m always fascinated with how Colombian culture differs from my own. And while I don’t place the same importance as my friend on physical environment, I do think shared history can have an extraordinary effect on the mentality of a populace.
I don’t want to write an overview of Colombia’s troubled past but, needless to say, whatever horrors were rampaging through countryside and cities alike, the capital was very much affected.
Bogotanos, and those who fled here, survived on luck and a few prayers – travelling as quickly and securely between home and work as possible and always aware of those parts of the city where even the angels feared to tread. It wasn’t that long ago either.
In my experience those years have had a profound effect on the Bogotá psyche. People here hate risk, for example, and frankly, they think you’re mad if you even think about taking one.
Bogotanos can be seriously agitated about travel – from their insistence upon calling secure taxis to their panic about the risk of landslides and earthquakes on longer journeys. These nerves extend to overseas travel too. A Bogotana friend of mine almost cried when I told her I planned to take an overnight bus in Peru.
2) The Arts
This facebook page is dedicated to the idea that innovation is lacking here, at least in the Colombian photographic scene. Other arty types have complained to me about “a deep risk averse-ness” in the Bogotá arts scene in general – from so-called greats who churn out the same work, year on year, to a small band of ‘creative’ types only employed because they are trusted to maintain the status quo.
Bogotá has no real seasons so Bogotanos can be forgiven for not keeping up with the latest spring and autumn collections. But in the two-and-a-half years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen only one deviation in everyday fashion – on the women’s side at least. That was the very gentle shift in trend from skinny jeans and boots to leggings and, er, boots. It’s rare to see risks when it comes to fashion and that includes hair, which is almost always kept long (and if you do spot a rogue bob – or, heaven forbid, a crop – then the woman is likely to be either a tourist or a deviant)
I like the diet here but to take risks as a chef, you either need to be very brave, very well-funded or both. A Colombian friend of mine, who does own an innovative restaurant, frequently tells of the day when he decided to splash out and serve brie instead of the standard white Alpina cheese. He watched in irritation as 90% of his customers fished out France’s finest and put it to one side, most without tasting it. He and his fellow restaurateur friends point to many restaurants they believe have failed on the basis of food-based risk aversion. (There are certainly far too few Indian restaurants in this town, but that might just be me)
Anyway, I remain fascinated by this risk averse-ness, especially when Colombia’s tourism slogan is: “The only risk is wanting to stay.” Of course it bloody is – if you take a risk like getting on a plane and flying all the way here, the people of this city will make damn sure you never have to take another one.
But I also think it’s an opportunity, if you’re brave enough, that is. We all know Bogotá is emerging from the chrysalis of those dark days and someone has to be the first to take that risk, to shake things up, to do something different.
And it might as well be you. Good luck.
(p.s For a laugh, I asked a Costeño who’s lived in Bogotá for four years to draw me a landscape. He drew La Popa, which is basically the only mountain in Cartagena. I guess he’s been here too long)
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.