There are two times a year when I become particularly unsettled. The first is January 1, that hideous time of year when we all turn into Roman Gods, straining our necks as we try to pick between examining the year that’s flown and wondering about the year that beckons.
The second is June 1. I hate June 1 because it means we are fast approaching the mid-point of the year. It’s a time to assess progress and panic about the fact there will soon be just six months left to achieve anything. It’s even worse if you happen to live in Bogotá, where June and January are pretty much identical. There is no gentle arrival of the sunshine, nor obvious lengthening of the days here. Time just seems to happen.
I console myself with three things; copious amounts of chocolate cake, that famous phrase from Leonard Bernstein (“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time,”) and the fact that, aged 30, I am now working harder than ever. When I was a child, I was a bit of a nerd (regular readers of this blog may have figured that out by now) Anyway, I was such a nerd that my mother, who is one of the most astute people I know, used to tell me not to do my homework (“I think that’s enough for tonight,” she would say, to an eleven-year-old kid who was half asleep on a textbook) Even now she calls me, all the way across the world, and says: “You’re not working too hard, are you?” I swear one year I did my homework on Christmas Day.
But the great thing about living in Bogotá, particularly about being surrounded by my Colombian friends, is the fact my current workload, my three jobs, is more than acceptable. The fact I work all hours, including weekends and carry a notebook everywhere I go, well, not only is that completely normal, it is actually lazier than most of the people I know.
You see, Bogotá is a ridiculously class-based society. You get graded on everything from your name and accent to your address and university, all of which forms part of a complicated formula designed to place you at an exact point on a social scale (and if you don’t believe me, try finding someone in Bogotá who can’t tell you their strato) Except I am foreign, which means that not only is my surname impossible to place (and pronounce) I also come from a country with a higher rate of social mobility (England is far from a meritocracy but let’s just say a large number of my Colombian friends still don’t really believe Margaret Thatcher’s father ran a fruit and vegetable shop. Half of our Presidents here have the same bloody surname) Similarly, my grandfather was a bus conductor and the other one a comic book printer, but my dad was a bank manager and I went to a good university, so I am somewhat difficult to categorise. The fact I pick-and-choose what to tell people makes me even more of an enigma.
I have therefore spent three years floating between clearly defined social classes and for someone who loves amateur sociology and analysing culture, it’s been a dream. Especially lately when, due to my rediscovered workaholism, I have become obsessed with how hard one particular sector of Bogotá society works. Let’s call them the ‘aspirational class’ – a group of people so determined to improve their circumstances they are willing to endure almost anything.
These people live in the poorer parts of Bogotá, further from the universities they want to attend, which in turn means hours on the bus. Then they have no money, a mistrust of debt and they went to worse schools so they often ended up with worse grades and therefore less access to public universities. These people amaze me. They amaze me much so that I have spent months surveying them to see if the extent of their workload can really be true.
Finally, though, I think I have found a winner. The diary of her week speaks for itself:
Ana is 23. She gets up every day at 3.10am to ensure she can eat breakfast, cook her lunch and be on the bus by 4.30. She then arrives at her office job at 5.45 which is annoying, because she doesn’t start work until 6.30 but, then again, that is the only bus that will get her there on time and, besides, she often uses that 45 minutes to do her university work.
She finishes work at 5pm, attends university every day from 6pm to 10pm and arrives home at 11pm. Her head doesn’t hit the pillow until midnight, which means she gets three hours sleep every ‘school night’ except Fridays when she gets to sleep for a whopping seven hours because she doesn’t have to be at university until 8am on a Saturday.
The good news is Ana only has to do this for four months at a time, before the semester takes a brief pause and, er, her degree will only take her five years to complete. Now I am supposed to be a hard-working soul but I honestly believe that routine would kill me. All I remember from university is day-time television, mid-week partying, a couple of hours of lectures a day and the longest summer holidays ever. I didn’t know I was born. And the funny thing is, I barely had to search to find Ana. There are thousands like her.
So whenever I have a weak moment and think perhaps I am working too hard, when I can’t remember the last time I read a magazine, let alone a book or when I finally get around to seeing a film only to find it’s not only gone from the cinema but not even the pirateers stock it anymore, I will remember where I live. I live in a country that is on the verge of greatness. And because the only way to achieve greatness is to work bloody hard for it, it will be people like Ana who make all the difference.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.