The shiny new year that is 2016 has been with us for what? 44 days now and already, I’m having a bit of a weird one. Today I was awarded Colombian residency. By the end of the year we’ll probably be at peace. A year of change it’s going to be then, for my adopted country and its adopted daughter.
“What are you doing in Colombia?” That’s the question they use to interrogate all immigrants seeking a permanent position. They ask it so fast you’re supposed to trip up and admit to God knows what. I told them I was writing another book. They wanted to know about the first one. I wasn’t sure I wanted them to know about the first one, in which I poured out every passion, frustration, hope, faith, fear, belief and lesson I’d learned from years of living in a country that was not then my own.
They made me a Colombian though, so the least I could do was give them a copy, which is why I’m sitting up now, in the early hours of what will no doubt be another glorious Bogotá morning, reading a book I haven’t dared to open in the two years since it’s been published. I wonder what the immigration office will make of it, this book called Colombia a comedy of errors?
The book was, in terms of commercial success, beyond anything my co-author Sergio and I could have imagined. It was picked up by the biggest media outlets in Colombia, the biggest booksellers and the biggest celebrities, snapped smiling and laughing with their noses buried in the cover. It was a bestseller when it was released and a bestseller again this Christmas, at the airport, where I guess my fellow foreigners panic-bought it as a present before they boarded the plane.
I wish my own relationship with the book was that successful. I have been blogging for years now, forgetting my words reach an audience beyond my subconscious, feeling surprised when strangers know stuff they shouldn’t, so you’d think I’d be used to it by now. I’m not. Sergio and I co-wrote that book but there is far too much of me in there. The times I’ve looked at homeless people on my street or disabled people selling biscuits, the times I’ve thought about people wrongfully in prison and politicians stealing our money, the times I’ve known there was something we can do and we don’t because we’re afraid or exhausted or resigned or selfish or whatever and I’ve felt so furious and frustrated by it all I’ve written it all down and, guess what, it ended up in that book.
I only ever really worried about accuracy. I’m a journalist and a foreigner, I could barely spell Colombia when I came so I assumed I’d get it all wrong (although now, thanks to this video, I appreciate that the harder a challenge, the better you perform) but in two years, no-one’s ever mentioned an inaccuracy. Lots of friends, hurt I think, have said things like: “Of course it’s all true. Why did you have to write it though?” One Bogotá businessman, one of the nicest people I know, told me: “Vicki, I read your book. It was hard, very hard. I was going to buy it for all my foreign clients but I don’t think I can now.” While I stood there, feeling like a child, he continued: “I bought 20 copies and sent them to the best-placed business contacts I have here. I figured if anyone needed to think about these things, it was us.”
You can understand now why I’ve been so afraid to open it. But today, with my new Colombian-ness in hand, I read the book again and I can’t believe it. What happened to that girl? The girl who knew the difference between right and wrong, politeness and passive-aggression, earning and entitlement? Who believed that if you believe it hard enough the world really will get better? When did she turn into the girl who crosses the street to avoid a homeless person, who is unashamed to scrum rather than queue for TransMilenio and who, once inside, swings around in fury having been hit on the head with a stick only to discover it’s being grasped by an old, blind man who’s just been left there, to hang?
What happened to the girl who wrote a book that, when the draft of the section on disabled Colombians was proofread by a wheelchair user he burst into tears because he was so happy, he said, that someone had finally articulated how he felt. That’s the girl they should have turned into a Colombian. The fair one, the fearless one, the ferocious one. Not the cynic who replaced her, the one who does mental maths at the supermarket checkout because she doesn’t trust the machine.
Stuff it. It’s a new year. We’re going to end it at peace with one another, whatever the cynics say. If Colombia can change its spots after 50 years of conflict, I reckon I can make myself believe again. Nice guys finish last, they say. I’m starting to wonder if that’s such a bad thing.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.