Lost in the city’s fabric: Can we really have too much freedom?

I don’t know a single expat who hasn’t been asked why they live abroad or, indeed, why they live in Bogotá. Equally, I’ve never found a single person who has a decent answer to those questions and, I’m ashamed to say, I am no different. “Bogotá is lovely,” I stutter. Then I change the subject.

Technically, the city should be a nightmare. The traffic is contrary and so is the public transport. Some things take forever (lingering fears over security will never allow you to ‘pop into’ a building to deliver a letter, no way, you’ll have to give your fingerprints and be sniffed by a dog and hand over your ID. Similarly very real fears about corruption mean constantly filling out forms that have to be stamped, stamped and stamped again) It also rains a lot in Bogotá. Oh and we have problems with poverty and, er, pollution.

I got on a bus the other day and there was a large tyre blocking the turnstile. I looked at the other passengers, who did everything they could to avoid looking at me. Then I climbed over the tyre, inelegantly and sat down. My first thought was: “Why is there a tyre on the bus?” My second thought was: “Why the hell doesn’t that bother me?”

Okay, so I am relaxed. I live in an apartment that is free of a television, a sofa, a table and, er, chairs. I have lived some months in other apartments sleeping solely on a mattress (I have a bed now, by the way. I love it) I don’t care about standing on buses or TransMilenio. I eat whatever, wherever, whenever. I can’t decide if it is years in journalism or travelling that has removed all associations I had with creature comforts, but it’s not that I’m a martyr. I certainly don’t suffer discomfort in silence. I just don’t notice these things. And it’s taken me ages to work out why.

Bogotá has given me more freedom than I have ever had in my life. For the first time, I work for myself. I work when I want, where I want and for who I want. Sometimes I work ridiculously hard but it’s fine because there is no-one to tell me any different. I can spend whole days with no-one knowing where I am and I am fiercely protective of that. I sometimes laugh and say “I don’t know” when someone calls and asks: “¿Dónde estás?” I often pretend it’s because, yes, I am in a café writing and I don’t want to be disturbed, but other times I know it’s because I am perversely secretive (for a blogger!) and I just enjoy being abandoned in this big, old, messed-up city. I’m a tiny piece in its fabric and that’s fine with me because I’m happy, I’m secure and I’m free.

It wouldn’t work in just any city though. It had to be one emerging from a chrysalis, filled with a spirit of opportunity and optimism. It had to be somewhere big yet homely, where people respect dreams and creativity, where there is gratitude and perspective, where people encourage you without fighting you, where there is beauty in the chaos and a struggle for survival that stops anyone judging you, because how can anyone judge you when we’re all just trying to achieve the same thing?

That’s why I love this city and I love it fiercely. I owe to it my freedom and it’s not just me. Colombians who have lived in the States and London have told me the same, as have other foreigners here. There is something special about being an outsider; having no past, carrying no expectation, no standard, no ‘norm’. As one friend said to me: “When I go home and tell them about something new I’ve done, they say: “But that’s not like you,” and I think, well, what is ‘like me’? I am changing all the time. And so are they.”

But freedom comes at a price, doesn’t it? That ability to be whatever you want to be, whoever you want to be? In my case, it’s not just the fact that I make my decisions alone, but that I don’t have to be accountable for them. If no-one knows what I do with my day, how can anyone tell me I’m doing it all wrong? If no-one can challenge me, then I’m automatically right… aren’t I? And, if every time I fail, I keep it a secret, then what on Earth is my incentive to start succeeding?

I have come to this painful realisation. That, really, no-one should live on an island. That friends and family are there for a reason. That freedom is wonderful until you have enough rope to hang yourself. That being secretive is weird and that it’s okay to share failure, because only by sharing mistakes can you identify their cause and, then, work out a way to succeed.

As such I have embarked on a strange month. I am going to eat properly every day (no sugar, gah!) no cocktails, no wine, sleep early, sleep well, exercise and, above all, pay my dues to this town. I have loved Bogotá in a selfish, empty way. I have taken everything and given nothing. In almost three years, I have not achieved a single goal. It’s time to stop hiding and stop pretending that I am just one among eight million, that I don’t really exist and therefore cannot fail. It’s time to act. It’s time to achieve. There’s a debt to be repaid.

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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26 Comments

  1. Olly

    Never thought I’d ever not enjoy my nightly beers, but that happens most days when I feel like I’ve had an undeserved lazy day. A long way from giving up the booze though I must admit.
    Surely your blog is itself is an achievement? Maybe you’re just one of the lucky ones whose goals happen to feel like fun…
    Couple of weeks ago I got to the stage where if I’d done some washing and gone for a run it felt like I’d achieved something – on a weekday, and even when I had plenty of work and paperwork to be getting on with. That’s when I realised I had problems. 8am alarms Monday to Friday now; even if early mornings don’t materialise all the time, at least the intention is there.
    Good luck with your giving back anyway! How are you planning to repay your debts?

  2. The Wanderlust Gene

    Good girl: it’s good you’ve made the discoveries and distinctions about freedom and solitude, sharing and putting your ego on the table. In light of your resolution, perhaps you should change the venue for your birthday party? Coffee, perhaps, or an activity-based rendezvous?

  3. Native Language Coaches

    Great article. So will this be your standard response for that eternal question, ¨Why Colombia?¨. I wish it could be mine but I´m sure most people would have dashed by the time I´d finish.
    I was really enjoying your article at the start as it confirmed all my own reasons for living here, albeit in Medellin, but towards the end you made me feel self conscious and guilty as I too have been hanging myself with freedom. I too need to pull up my socks. Thanks for the motivation

  4. Clare

    People always ask why I left London for here, I have 2 reasons really, 1. Bad job situations in the UK and a bit of wanderlust and 2. My boyfriend is Colombian, (but we both decided to ditch London and try here). I would say I liked it in Bogota. But I work for a terrible, farce of a place, who call themselves ‘British’ who promised something in the interview that they never delivered. (so bad in fact ,all of my (foreign too) colleagues are complaining to embassies and the education authority to stop people from taking work there). They take money from me for stupid reasons and patronise me daily. It’s made me want to leave. I had an interview with The Embassy here not too long ago, myself and a British colleague of mine actually. They turned us down to hire an American and Australian. Godo for them, but it made me feel weird, that the British Embassy was ran by non-Brits. And The British Council? Well I worked for free for 3 weeks with the promise of a job, and then they said no. Colombians have welcomed me, but it makes me sad my experience here has been so negative, you always seem so positive and in love with Bogota. But it’s brought me job hell, money problems, insecurity…the lot. The same as the UK, except well, that’s home, and it feels easier to try there.

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      That is sad. I am relentlessly positive and in the beginning I did any kind of work, at any time and in any place to survive. Three years on it’s better and I finally feel more secure but it takes a long time to build up contacts, especially for paid writing work. I think I understand now that if you move somewhere it is probably the three year mark when your life starts to happen. If you want to meet and have coffee let me know, I do know lots of people in this town, you never know. My only advice is to keep fighting.

      1. Clare

        Hi Vicki, I read your reply again above, and I, recently, (very) have decided that in fact I would like to stay in Bogota for at least a little longer. It dawned on me that my job was the thing making me dislike it (a week left on my contract and a bank holiday weekend or two recently opened my eyes to how I do actually enjoy living here). If you happen to know of anyone looking for a silly English girl who doesn’t really want to be a teacher in a money sucking school…I would absolutely love to know….!!!

    2. bananaskinflipflops

      Clare, I’ve been thinking about your post and decided I want to write some more:

      I decided to stay and live here on a whim, while ‘passing through’. I had some savings in Britain, but swore to myself I would only stay here if I could survive on the money I earned (so stubborn) The first two years were tough – the first in particular. I was up at 5am weekdays, 6am at weekends (I worked seven days, but not whole days) I lived in the so-called ‘maid’s’ rooms, lived on arepas, lived on the bloody bus (2-3 hours a day at least) I am not complaining about it because I was, and still am, so happy – and that having gone from ‘living the dream’; nice flats in England, good salary, all the dresses, cocktails and holidays I wanted.

      The ‘lowest point’ came when I trusted the wrong person, found myself homeless – still too stubborn to touch my lifeline savings – I slept on a mattress in an art studio and spent one whole morning in tears because I was so ashamed to have been such an idiot. I barely admitted it to my friends. Four weeks later, co-incidentally, I went home to England on my first trip home… did I consider staying there? Not for one moment.

      I always knew Bogota was right for me. I always had a feeling I couldn’t explain, like I was doing the right thing and would one day find out what it was. Two months after I returned from my England holiday, it hit me (on a bus!) and I started writing a book. Now I know why I am meant to be here. Almost three years in, I finally have regular money, a decent home (for now) and I know what my life goal is. To finish my book.

      I have also become obsessed with the concept of happiness. Trying to understand how I was so happy when, on paper, my life looked so weird (several months sleeping on mattresses in rooms I could barely fit in) I was NEVER down (except that one teary morning and that was only a morning) I found this article and I think you might like to read it.

      My favourite part is: “Those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

      Obviously no-one is comparing a few financial setbacks, early morning alarms, cramped bus journeys and housing issues to a concentration camp (obviously!) and it was never ‘horrendous’ but the point is to take Frankl’s theories and apply them widely to any circumstances. I am happy here because my life has meaning and I don’t give a damn about any setback or discomfort. I knew I was here for a reason and for that I endured even without realising I was enduring because I was so happy, content and had so much faith that “it would all work out in the end”

      My point is (and I am no agony aunt!) is: Do you have meaning and a reason for being here or, at least, faith that there will be a point to it all in the end? I really hope so because, with that, I think all your job problems will turn out to be worth it.

      Gah, I sound like a bloody hippie! Let’s have coffee! Contact me through the facebook page. And if I make Bogota life sound hard, it’s not! It’s just the other side I don’t normally bother to write about, because it’s irrelevant when compared to the many, many amazing things about living here. I am so grateful to this city and love it to its very core.

  5. Clare

    Thank you so much for those lovely replies! To be honest I think when I go back home in June I won’t come back. Maybe it’ll make me appreciate it more for when I visit in the future. I don’t really have a meaning to be here any longer, (even my boyfriend wants to go back to the UK, he’s lived away from Colombia for 7 years now and always says he feels he doesn’t ‘fit’ here anymore). I don’t see a point either, the career I’m in doesn’t really fit into Bogota (Technical Theatre Art and Stage Management – I have great contacts in the National Theatre here actually who offered me work, but my Spanish is not yet fluent, so I’m about a year away from a proper job in that I’d say). But! I would love to meet you for coffee before I leave at the end of June, I love that you are so happy here. It’s a real change to do what you love where you feel you fit in 🙂

  6. Tigre

    Your blog is always a joy to read, even if I don’t always agree – but what fun would it be if I did? I think that you have heard Toby and my reasons for moving to Bogota from the US several times, so I won’t retread that territory here. But, on a very deep and personal level we both felt like foreigners in that country, even though we both born and (for the most part) raised there. When we made our decision to leave, it was already well-past time to go for us, but the Universe held us there until it was the right time for us to move to the right place. And thankfully she did, because when we came to Bogota on vacation with absolutely no thought of moving here, a new world literally opened up to us. And when we put the intention to move to Bogota, all the pieces inexplicably fell into place. When we finally landed and started our new life, we didn’t have any sort of clear plan – which is unusual for us – we just had to remind ourselves that the Universe allowed us to fulfill our dream of moving to Bogota and we had to continue trusting that it was the right path for us. Four years on, we have been up, down and all around, but our faith in this decision has never wavered. We have experienced the most joyous moments, and some of the darkest, but we keep moving forward even when it feels like we are trudging through quicksand. And here we are, with a wonderful life that we made happen by ourselves, against the odds! And we are surrounded by incredible people – Colombians and expats – who feed our minds and souls with their own amazing accomplishments. And, we are honored to be writing the first official guide book about Bogota to see worldwide distribution. It is not something we ever imagined doing, but it is the manifestation of all we have done during the past four years. We do what we do out of love and admiration for this incredible city and country, that continues to surthrive despite the internal conflicts and the external isolation. We also do it because of people like you and all the others that we know who keep pushing against the walls and the wind and the naysayers and the self-doubt and the frustration and the disappointments and the….to pay heed to our calling and fulfill our own destinies.

    When can I read your book?!?!

  7. Tigre

    Well, I hope that after we put the guidebook to bed, I will get back to writing my fiction! One pf my plays is also supposed to be staged as part of the LGBT Theatre Festival at Barraca Teatro in June, but given the short amount of time, I think that might have to be delayed.

    Now, to the question of having too much freedom: When we first moved here, as much as I wanted to shed my mundane routine and life, I found myself completely listless and out of sorts. It was tough going for quite some time until I could establish some sort of new routine and habits. Without that, I go absolutely mad!

  8. Simply X

    I just will wait for your books to be published… so you can pay back all the “limitless” freedom and give your taxes to the next corrupt cartel of politicians:-) Cheers mate, Chris

  9. José Andrés Rueda Montaño

    No sea tan divina carajo! saludos desde Londres, extranio a Bogota pero Londres es fantastica, me dejare exprimir por esta ciudad (Londres) hasta que ella quiera…, para regresar asi sea brevemente a mi amada y caotica Bogota, me encnato tu blog 😉

  10. niko

    Hi. This my second time visiting your blog, I currently live in Beijing China, but I really want to be in Latin America. Can you tell me, is there anywhere better for a qualified ESL teacher to find work in Bogota other than just craigslist? There is always a local website that one never knows about until they’ve already been scammed and conned. Can you help me out?

    1. Clare

      I work in a private school in Bogota, every lesson is taught in English, there are many schools that work like this, but some you should avoid because of the way they treat foreign teachers (extra hours for no extra pay etc). I can give a list to you of places I had interviews I had and places I would recommend? All private multilingual schools that get you your permit etc.

  11. Juan

    I know the feeling of being totally unknown, it gives you this strange freedom, where you are aware if something go wrong you can go back, but you won´t do it, the whole point of it is never back down, so it challenges you to do things you´d never do back home, act different or even think, that being said, you can’t over do it, (I did), for the mystery part, at first you are ok, it’s refreshing because you feel like you answer to no one, but .. for me it was a little lonely and a lot of introspection, if you have nothing to hold on to, it gets complicated. I liked the way you put it, I´ve come to a similar realization after 2 years of living abroad, I´m Colombian but I live in Argentina, and lived in Chile (enjoyed the other entries by de way), well, I believe you´re in the right track, keep going, take good care of yourself and the people who is always there for you.

  12. Anjuli

    I love this post! I came to Bogotá because after graduating I couldn’t find a job in England and having to move home, be a waitress again, and not being able to find an adult job got so demoralizing. for me Bogotá is freedom because it is abundant with opportunity, and the freedom you have being away from home, and excitement of living somewhere new means you look for these opportunities in different places than you would in your home country.

  13. Ceri

    First of all, that picture? Wow, beautiful!

    Second of all? This post is so inspiring. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I resonate with it. ” There is something special about being an outsider; having no past, carrying no expectation, no standard, no ‘norm” – You said it!

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