Bogotá, a city of contrasts

You know you’re somewhere unusual when the bathroom in your hotel offers, along with a shower cap, razor and vanity kit, some condoms. The people you meet are speaking English, French and Italian as if they’ve just stepped out of a conference room in Paris with Umberto Eco, and the light is picking out the red-brick apartment blocks along the thickly forested hillside that guards the city as if New Mexico was paying a house-call on Rio. The first question you’re asked by your local, furiously intellectual host is, “What grieves you most about the state of the world?”

The first time I’d visited Bogotá, in 1975, as a teenager, the blue-black clouds that seem to hover perpetually over the city were perhaps in part a reflection of my own clouds of ignorance. A schoolfriend and I had found a listing in the terse South American Handbook for improbably cheap lodgings and had not known enough Spanish to understand what the cab driver meant when he leered at us, “Muchachas!” Being good products of English boarding school, we had spent three days in the Hotel Picasso – a dive on an unlit street surrounded by unpaved alleyways – before we realised that the other patrons were all scantily-clad, surprisingly amenable young women. They, in turn, were astonished to find 18-year-old boys who knew so little about the birds and the bees.

Now, almost three times as old, I can see all I didn’t in a city that is less about unions than uneasy divisions: the jeunesse dorée of the Zona Rosa are about as likely to visit the sprawling shanty towns of Ciudad Bolivar in the south of the city as the girls in the Hotel Picasso were likely to start sipping chai at the Crepes and Waffles outlet in Los Rosales. Bogotá is a world – in very small part – of European manners and readers of The New York Review of Books, under a cloud of jungly wilderness and English drizzle. “The rich want to be European,” a young graduate told me, hardly noticing that she was speaking her third language. “The middle want to be American. And the poor want to be Mexican.”

She gestured at the mariachi music that was jaunting out of a nearby taxi.

“And the indigenous?”

“Oh, they just want to be themselves.”

The parts of the city that a visitor does not see – which is likely to be nearly all of it (unless he’s a witless 18-year-old boy just out of English boarding school) – comprise shacks so far from middle-class Bogotá’s idea of itself that they are seldom mentioned in the newspapers. The small, protected circles of the fortunate seem entirely at ease with “Thai sushi” restaurants and references to La Dolce Vita (I asked one 23-year-old who her favourite actress was and she answered, without hesitation, “Monica Vitti. In L’Avventura”). “The cool place now is Dubai,” she went on. “Everyone wants to use the name.” I walked along a main street and, sure enough, not far from a Dunkin’ Donuts with its own internet cafe, found a cigarette stand called “Dubai.”

Her own brother was working in Dubai, she said; the talk at a globalisation panel nearby was of China and Africa (the US was not mentioned once); and wise men from India were said to be arriving in battalions to prop up the business and software sectors. Colombia seems in some ways closer to the wider world than it’s ever been before.

Among the lucky souls, in the northern quarters, culture, even literature, seems as buzzy, as effortlessly international, as it might be around the Left Bank. Late one evening in a Mexican restaurant decorated with camp masks worn by professional wrestlers, I watch two giggling young women suddenly descend on George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and ask him to autograph copies of the Style issue of the magazine.

“Where do you come from?” he offered, in amazement.

“Mars,” said one. “No, I’m sorry. We are both engineers. Professors of engineering at the University of the Andes.”

“Engineers who read The New Yorker?”

“Only the Style issue!”

Where the volunteers at a literary festival in Los Angeles are nearly all perky grandmothers and the occasional retired man, the ones at the El Malpensante festival in Bogotá are young, largely female, college kids handing out cans of Red Bull energy drink. Paul Ricoeur, Robert Hughes, Kazuo Ishiguro are spoken of as if they were rock stars.

For most of us, Colombia, if it means anything, means a 60-year-old guerrilla insurgency; paramilitaries killing the leftists when the military aren’t doing the same; narco-traficantes with their “pre-paid” women and, very occasionally, the waking dreams of Gabriel García Márquez’s global unglobalised village, Macondo. The cities of Cali and Medellín are seldom mentioned without the word “cartel” attached, and the leftists of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) still hold 700 hostages, despite the dramatic rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others in July. But as an Englishman who has lived there for 18 years told me, Botogá is in fact a stronghold of US-friendly democracy, the oldest democracy in Latin America, even as the rest of the continent lurches towards the left.

“We’re defended here,” he tells me. “Sheltered by the mountains. It’s a fortress city, really. A fortress mentality. People are coming here from Venezuela precisely because it’s such a safe and stable place compared with all its neighbours.”

Those mountains, always wreathed in mist, and casting a lowering, melancholy spell upon the seven or so million people below, seem to feature in every conversation. Every day I’ve been in Bogotá there’s been rain and a penetrating chill, even as parts of the outskirts bask under a high mountain light (the city sits at 8,500ft, with the hills rising another 1,700ft or more).

Compared with the sunlit, plaza-filled capitals of the rest of Latin America, it feels turned in on itself, haunted and huddled; as I was shivering under several blankets the day of my arrival, a bell-boy offered, “If you need an air-conditioner, I can bring one to you.”

The chill winds, the constant changes in the skies give a texture to Bogotá, a weight and withdrawnness that make for very different pleasures from the seaside cities to the north, or from the theatre, rock music and literature festivals by which it presents itself to the world. It’s a place for visiting the remarkable structure owned by the Banco de la República in the quaint colonial Candelaria section, where you can enjoy, with no entrance fee, five separate museums. It’s a place for watching, with spiked poignancy, the child acrobats and the flame-swallowers who perform for cars at red lights, trying to cadge pennies from the BMWs heading towards “Gourmet Pizza” stores. It’s a place for driving out to the humble La Iglesia del Divino Nüno church in the south where guerrillas, children, newly arrived people from the countryside and even a few society folk clap along to guitar-strummed hymns in the rain. A few years ago, one recent university graduate tells me, a survey found that Colombians were the happiest people in the world. “We have guerrillas, we have narco-traficantes, and we are happy,” she declared, leaving it for me to work out how much the furious partying was an attempt to escape, and how much to transform the difficulties all around.

On my last day in town, as I climbed a narrow street towards tower blocks on the slopes above (in some parts of the city, the hills are overrun with slums; others with apartment buildings), I remembered the young guide who’d explained to me, pleasantly, “The rich all live high up, in their condoms.”

“Sorry?” I said, taken back perhaps to the Hotel Picasso of an earlier age. “Their condoms,” she said. “Apartment-places.”

“Condominiums, I think.”

“Ah yes,” she responded engagingly. I blush. This tropical woman is now red all over. In Bogotá, however, the confusion seemed emblematic. It’s never clear how much you’re talking about prophylactics, how much about pleasure. Protection may be the city’s most enduring art form.

Pico Iyer is the author most recently of ‘The Open Road’, a book about the Dalai Lama

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