The two Colombias

It was already dark by the time I arrived in Bogota. I was extremely grateful that Monica, the sister of a friend of a friend in Boulder, had agreed to wait for me at the airport. The flight had arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled 9:35pm arrival time, but because of walkway malfunction, it wasn’t until well after 10:00pm that I was able to get my bag and find Monica waiting patiently in the airport lobby. Luckilly my letter from the Universidad de los Andes (UniAndes) – one of the most prestigious and expensive universities in Colombia – made my passage through immigration and customs easy, otherwise I might not have made it out of the airport by midnight.

I apologized for the delay and told Monica about the broken-down walkway. “Bienvenido a mi país desordenado (Welcome to my disorganized country),” she said as she explained that the airport was brand new, but that things rarely run smoothly in Colombia.

This fundamental contradiction between development and inequality, discord and prosperity is a theme that came up again and again throughout my first few days in Colombia. Everywhere you look there are two Colombias, the one for the rich and the one for the poor.

This stark divide is visible across the city: in the heavy security that separates the city from UniAndes (which Monica described as another world “otro mundo”), in the squatter neighborhood that stands like a disorganized pile of rubble against the backdrop of a billion-dollar residential development, and most dramatically in the north (rich)/ south (poor) divide that splits Bogota in half.

Monica, while dropping me off at my hostel in La Candelaria, told that she rarely ever goes to the center of the city, and while she didn’t say it explicitly she implied that the area to the south of the center was not an area she would consider visiting.

Later, on top of Monserrate, after hearing of the north/south divide from our tour guide, Andres, my fellow classmate and traveller, Olivia Snarski, waxed philosophical: “That’s so interesting, I want to wright a novel about a tragic love story between the north and south,” she said evoking images of in my mind of Romeo and Juliet and he West Side Story – classic tales if star-crossed lovers.

The socio-economic stratification in Colombia not just informal, it is also institutionalized in the country’s progressive tax code. People receive a tax ranking on a scale of one to six, one being the poor (like those living in the squatter settlements I described above) and six being the ultra rich (those who can afford to send their children to UniAndes without a scholarship). This score is based in part on ones income and in part on the neighborhood in which you live. Andres said that even if his ecotourism business were to take off and he started making fistfuls of money, he would still be considered a level two because he is a rent-payer living in Candelaria. Both Monica and Andres used this scale to describe the neighborhoods we passed as we traversed the city on our respective tours.

It has only been a week since I landed in Bogota. First impressions abound. Ask me again in two months whether these impressions stand up to the test of time.

Finally, I want to make a few shout outs to the people that have made my first few days in Colombia unforgettable:

  • Monica, my adoptive Colombian mother who has shown me incredible kindness and helpfulness beyond anything I could have expected.
  • Andres of Explora Suesca. I couldn’t have asked for a more fun, professional, or experienced adventure guide while rock climbing in Suesca.
  • Gisella of Hostel El Descanso in Suesca. Not only is the hostel she runs beautiful and full of her amazing hand-made pottery, but Gisella went out of her way to find us better, cheaper accommodations in Bogota.
  • Andres of Andes Ecotours, our amazing tour guide who wasn’t shy about taking us into a not-so-safe part of the city to show us an amazing urban development project that has reclaimed an important watershed and replaced gang tags with environment–focused street art.
  • Sara, a Danish street artist who gave us an unofficial tour of the amazing murals that give character to the center of Bogota and whose mural has started a trend of environment-themed murals in the watershed project I described above, which will help to secure the project’s long-term viability better than any public education campaign.
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