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.