To many foreigners, Colombia is a nightmare of drugs and violence. Yet normal life goes on there, and, in Bogotá, it's even possible to forget that war still ravages the countryside. This paradox of perceptions—outsiders' fears versus insiders' realities—drew June Carolyn Erlick back to Bogotá for a year's stay in 2005. She wanted to understand how the city she first came to love in 1975 has made such strides toward building a peaceful civil society in the midst of ongoing violence. The complex reality she found comes to life in this compelling memoir.
Erlick creates her portrait of Bogotá through a series of vivid vignettes that cover many aspects of city life. As an experienced journalist, she lets the things she observes lead her to larger conclusions. The courtesy of people on buses, the absence of packs of stray dogs and street trash, and the willingness of strangers to help her cross an overpass when vertigo overwhelms her all become signs of convivencia—the desire of Bogotanos to live together in harmony despite decades of war. But as Erlick settles further into city life, she finds that "war in the city is invisible, but constantly present in subtle ways, almost like the constant mist that used to drip down from the Bogotá skies so many years ago."
Shattering stereotypes with its lively reporting, A Gringa in Bogotá is must-reading for going beyond the headlines about the drug war and bloody conflict.
Even back then, before the Internet, DVDs, and CDs, before the TransMilenio superbuses and the Unicentro mall, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and before 9/11, even back then, U.S. travellers avoided Colombia.
I wasn't one of them.
After five years working for newspapers in the United States, I had taken a year off to explore Latin America. Latin America was in my bones, even if it wasn't in my blood. My parents had spent their honeymoon in Havana and Cuba; my mother had yearned to be a high school Spanish teacher. During my college years, I lived in a Dominican neighborhood in New York to save money on rent and went frequently with my neighbors to the Dominican Republic. My first job after graduating from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism was covering the Cuban community in New Jersey.
I didn't know much about Colombia when I arrived in Medellín or precisely, Envigado, in late fall of 1975, after a couple of months in Central America. A few months before in Florida, I had met Elaine, a young Romance language professor from the University of California and her friend Nena, a bullfighter. I didn't know then that "Nena" was a generic nickname for "girl," and not a proper name, but I was fascinated by the idea of a woman bullfighter.
I took up their invitation to stay at their farm home in Envigado. People tell me that the town is now one more neighborhood of Medellín, but at the time, it was rural and isolated. I enjoyed the women's hospitality, but I am an urban soul. Medellín, even when we visited, seemed a bigger version of the cities in Central America. I was bored with beans and the bland saltless variety of small white arepa, the inevitable corn pancake served with the beans and rice. After a few days, I took off for Bogotá, where I had the names of three Honduran graduate students at the Javeriana University, given to me by mutual friends in Central America.
I called Adelita, María de la Cruz, and Honduras (named after her country), and they immediately invited me to stay with them in a student residence near the university. They were charming and intellectually stimulating and knew Bogotá well. Even though I spent much of my time alone while they were in classes, they told me where to go and what to do. They introduced me to a delicious chicken stew called ajiaco and the huge variety of exotic fruit drinks. They guided me to obscure bookstores and told me about out-of-the-way museums.
One late afternoon, just before the sky burst into its nightly explosion of pinks, oranges, and yellows, I was returning to the university residences, walking along the Séptima, Bogotá's main avenue. I had just visited a gigantic bookstore called Buchholz, floor after floor of books in the downtown area. I spent hours there and left smelling musty and feeling happy. As I strolled along the Séptima, suddenly there was an overwhelming smell of eucalyptus. The sun was beginning to set. To my right was a dense park of tall trees and grass with infinite shades of green. I felt a surge in my stomach or perhaps it was in my soul. It was a feeling of love, a feeling of love like when you see a person and fall in love at first sight. Only it wasn't a person. It was a city.
Then it was time to leave. I couldn't stay forever. I was off on a year's trip around Latin America, and Buenos Aires and Brazil lay ahead. But first there was Cali, a tropical city in western Colombia. From Cali, I planned on going to the colonial city of Popayán and then on to Ecuador. Many of the travellers I met in Central America had already flown there, skipping over Colombia. I sadly said good-bye to the Hondurans and to my Bogotá and headed off.
What I had forgotten or didn't know in the first place was that a fair in Cali was about to take place, as it did every December. I couldn't find a hotel room. Everything was full, except for the most expensive hotels and the kind used by prostitutes and lowlifes. I couldn't afford the former and wasn't about to risk the latter. The Hondurans in Bogotá had lived in a student residence; perhaps there were similar ones in Cali, I thought. So I bought a newspaper, asked someone about good neighborhoods, and made my way to a promising residence.
A middle-aged woman with red hair opened the door. I offered her a month's rent for a week's stay. "How do I know you're not a drug trafficker?" she asked. I was startled. "Look at my face. Do I look like a drug trafficker? I'm a journalist." "But how do I know that?" she asked, stressing the word "know." Journalists didn't have professional identity cards, and my passport didn't indicate my profession; drug traffickers at the time were indeed young North Americans, and the drug of choice was marijuana.
She gave herself the answer. "There is a journalist staying here, and when he comes home, if he says 'yes,' it's yes, and if he says 'no,' it's no."
The gentleman, who actually worked in the classified ads department of the newspaper El País, came home, talked to me, and said, "Sí!" He invited me to the paper's offices the next day.
He gave me a tour of the newspaper and asked if I wanted to meet some paisanos—fellow countrymen. I didn't particularly want to, but I said yes to be polite. We walked into a small and rather dark office. Someone was sitting at an oversized desk and looked up and asked, "Are you looking for a job?" I wasn't, but to be polite, I said yes.
He asked me about my experience and then said a job was available as an editor of the Cali Chronicle, the English-language weekly published by the Cali newspaper. He said that I was certainly qualified.
"There's a serious problem though," he added, pausing.
"What?" I asked, thinking of the pay scale or visa problems.
He replied with a worried look on his face: "It's in Bogotá."