Everyone has a different way of getting their message across. Some people can’t help being direct. “You’ve changed,” they laugh, nudging me in the side and pulling one of those faces. Others are more polite. “Erm, well, you kinda have a different style to how I remember you when you first arrived in Bogotá,” they say, trying not to smile.
The fact is both the city and I have transformed in the three years I have lived here but, as everyone knows, living through change makes it almost impossible to notice. It takes a nudge, or a shock, or some time away, to say: “Wow, things have changed. How on Earth did I miss that?”
A friend in Liverpool once told me I was “living the dream” because I lived in a nice two-bedroom flat, right on the river, I had a nice job, nice friends, enough money for cocktails, shoes and holidays. But it wasn’t enough because it wasn’t what I really wanted to do with my life and, worse, I had no idea what I wanted to do instead.
(I’d wanted to be a newspaper journalist from the age of 15 and started work in my first newsroom at 21. Of course I don’t regret that for a second because a) I agree with Meg Jay that you have to get out and do something with your life when you are young and b) journalism taught me to understand the world. Contrary to popular belief, newspaper reporters are some of the kindest, most empathetic people on the planet. Despite their outward machoism, cynicism, bitterness and despair they are always inclined to fight for what is right, often at huge personal cost)
I spent three months living on the Galapágos islands and another month travelling Ecuador and Colombia before I realised the reason I was struggling so much with planning the rest of my life was because planning was what had got me into journalism in the first place. I no longer trusted myself to plan. It was such a relief to arrive in Bogotá, a huge, beautiful but completely messed-up city where I could learn Spanish, dance some salsa and lose myself in another world. I could just concentrate on surviving each moment rather than worrying about the future.
I came to the city in a backwards way because I decided to ‘visit’ Bogotá one morning and took a bus here six hours later. That meant when I decided to “stay for three months” I continued living further west than most expats, my foreign friends were English teachers who struggled like I did, my Colombian friends were students who were even worse. They taught me how to navigate the buses, where to eat (and how much to pay) where to shop (and how much to pay) I had no smart clothes – they were all in England – but I didn’t care. I figured that part of my life was over. Once a Colombian friend looked as me and asked: “What are you wearing?” (green t-shirt, jeans, red Converse) When my Dad came to visit he looked at me with typically British distaste and said: “Good grief, you look like an American.” (Sorry to my glamorous US friends but we do get some badly-dressed tourists in London)
Do you realise I lived in Bogotá for more than a year before I had even heard of Rosales and the Zona G? (the city’s most expensive eating quarter) I am not talking about eating there or walking around, I hadn’t even heard of it. I lived quietly for a year, perhaps 18 months, working, writing and studying but gradually, of course, I changed. I earned more money, I met new people who introduced me to new parts of the city, my student friends started their “real lives” and drifted to the four corners, my old teacher friends moved on and I did too. I threw away my clothes, including the infamous Converse. I bought the sort of dresses and pencil skirts I’d loved in England. I started going to bars where they served wine instead of the standard beer or rum.
When my ex-boyfriend moved back to Cartagena he made me promise I would live in a “decent apartment”. He always believed I was capable of more and as a terrifyingly determined, hard-working, self-improving Colombian he was frustrated by my apparent lack of financial aspiration. Well, this year I decided two things: 1) to start wearing high heels again and 2) to get that apartment. I now have ten pairs of heels in my wardrobe and some of the places I have considered living have been Strato 4. I think he would be proud.
I don’t mind being called gomela. I still take the bus, support the shadow economy and use my old Colombian money-saving tricks. More importantly, I never forget how lucky I am. I cringe at the fact the champagne cocktails I can now afford cost the same as employing a housemaid for a day. And whether I am going to give money to a bus seller, a beggar or not, I still look them in the eye. Of course I look down on them too, but that is because these days I trot around the city in high heels and, frankly, I look down on everyone.
I often feel guilty but at least I am not the only one who has changed and this city knows it. You only have to look at this article to see that Bogotá is gentrifying at the rate of knots. Colombians who once fled the city are falling over themselves to come home and join in the transformation; to be part of the movement; to share in the magic.
But this is a city that held open its arms at a time when shadowy, lurking horrors in the countryside forced more than five million people to flee their homes. Nowadays we might be able to wear all the high heels and eat all the sushi we like but we still have to filter that good fortune. A divide between rich and poor serves no-one. Sharing our wealth makes our streets safer, our schools fuller, our universities brighter and our economy stronger. And at the very least it would be nice to know if a dash of egalitarianism really does make for a better cocktail – whether you like champagne or not.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors