The Bogotá Psyche I: Why risk it?

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.

Consider:

1) Travel

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.

3) Fashion

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)

4) Food

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.

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9 Comments

  1. uncovercolombia

    Hi there. Interesting observations as ever. You are spot on regarding risk aversion mentality in the average Colombian. There is wide acceptance of the fact that in Colombia things are getting better by almost every measure. However, in the same way that perception follows reality abroad and most people around the world still associate Colombia with an extremely unsafe country where drugs and crime are rampant, the local population who had to endure and live through the worst of the crisis behaves in a particularly cautious (almost paranoiac) way.

    The recovery of trust among Colombians and the change on the attitude towards risk will take many more years. However, the right signs are beginning to show: We believe people’s attitude is changing (specially among younger generations) and Colombia es poised for an amazing change for the best over the coming years.

    Only a few years ago you would not see in the centre of Bogota a single foreign tourist. Those brave enough to come would stay behind close doors or would exercise extreme caution. Nowadays, you can walk up and down La Candelaria or even take Transmilenio and hear people happily conversing in English or any other language, enjoying the city and its historic heritage. In many ways these foreigners are leading the locals in the re-discovery and re-claiming of their own country after so many years or fear and trouble.

    These are exiting times to be (and visit) Colombia. Our country is changing and those who take the risk to visit will have a unique chance to witness and be part of this amazing transformation.

    Sorry for the long comment, it appears that Friday night has brought up our philosophical side 😉

    Looking forward to your next post

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      Hey, sorry it’s taken me a long time to reply – but I like your philosophical side and am just about to finish another piece so hope to catch you in this mood again! I think Colombia is changing and agree there has never been a better time to visit – risk aversion can go both ways, some risk is good (creativity/changing the world) but other risks are unnecessary and I like the fact Colombians take responsibility for themselves and will never willingly put themselves or anyone else at risk. Happy Friday again 🙂

  2. Zoë Bassett

    Without telling him why, I asked my Bogotano boyfriend to draw a “paisaje.” Once he’d worked out I was saying neither “Paisa” nor “pasaje” (Darn my accent!) he drew….. A few fields, some mountains, and a little house! He wasn’t pleased when I showed him your post 😀

  3. Otz

    Great Post I believe that a lot of what you describe here about us Bogotanos and Colombians fits with reality. Is always nice to get the overview of an outsider regarding your own culture. I have to add that ppl here are quite conservative, even though they haven´t realized about it!

  4. bgfarrow

    Very, very true on the food (how can a trip to the Alpina factory be considered a highlight of many a weekend?). And the fashion. Don’t know enough about the art scene to comment …

  5. Ceri

    Wow, the attitude to travel is really interesting. Mexicans seem to be so laid back about that kind of thing. It’s a very Mexican thing to have the attitude, ‘Whatever happens, happens’ but, on the other hand, travelling without your family is a major no-no here. I’m still questioned every other week about why I would leave my family and how my parents feel about the fact that I live away from them (y’know, at the age of 26).

    And I also noticed a trend in fashion here too. In D.F. there are definitely ‘alternative’ subcultures, but I notice that the majority of women wear *tight* clothes, no matter what their size, and majorly high heels whether in or outside of work. The hairstyle’s the same too. They all have long hair usually up in a ponytail and the clips and bobbles they put in their hair is reeeeally kind of ‘little girlish’. Lots of hearts and flowers and little balls or beads on the elastics. Really strange seeing this sweet little girl face with a very curvaceous figure pouring out of her clothes.

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