Saturday, 5 November 2011

First Impressions of the City

Arriving in Bogotá, first impressions are of how dirty it looks and how big it feels, like most Latin American capitals. It’s worlds away from what I will experience as of next week, living in the Peace Community. But I’m still struck by a whole range of things: the altitude, which makes me ill on the first day; having to put toilet paper in the bin again; loud music in the streets; the fact that everyone wants to dance (none of that oddly both stuck-up and self-conscious British reserve); the strength of the community of human rights workers here; graffiti everywhere; how friendly people are; the uniquely Latin American liveliness of the streets. These last two contrast Morocco, where I spent the last six months, where you have to be on guard all the time because of those people who want to screw with you (here you can ask for directions and people tell you, truthfully, without demanding money); and also where the absence of women in public life seems to me to make everything sadder.

Coming here has been an odd mix of the familiar and the foreign. Latin America is not my continent, and I haven’t lived in this part of the world for three years. But it has still been a large part of my life and the sights and sounds feel familiar in comparison in many ways to those of Morocco.

It is also good to understand all the time and to hear Spanish around me everywhere. I guess it comes down to the absolute nature of the conquest (especially here, where the indigenous population is quite small), whereas Morocco’s complex linguistic make-up reflects a more composite colonial history, and those multiple layers of culture and language are difficult to penetrate. Here, I can understand everyone; it’s a relief and it feels good.

I have some time to adjust. I’ll be here until next Friday. While trying to grapple with my many doubts, questions and concerns about my new endeavor, I’m also learning a lot with my colleagues here. It’s good to have exposure to the reality of Colombia from here, still in a removed way, before it hits me hard in the face when I make the transition next week. And it’s incredible to be discovering some of the truths about the world I’m about to step into, the multiple facets of the conflict, and just how far the reality is to the picture painted to us in the news internationally.