Sunday, January 3, 2016

A Whole New World

Traveling is addictive; the more traveling you do, the more you want to do it. There is just too much in this world that is too beautiful, amazing, fascinating, interesting -- the adjectives are endless -- to pass up. From the time we returned to the U.S. in July up through this point, the most traveling we had done was a ten-day road trip to the mid-west, so we were all itching to go somewhere again. We've missed being able to travel like we did in Thailand, exploring a different country and culture every few months. We also love and wanted to continue this new tradition of being abroad during Christmas time, which allows us to get away from the holiday craziness here while continuing to see the world.

Still, given how expensive it is to get out of the U.S., especially during the holidays, we didn't want to break the bank. So we decided to book a short trip to Bogota, Colombia, during the winter break. This was going to be our first time in South America, making it my husband's and my fourth continent and our son's third. It wasn't as long of a trip as our previous holiday trips to Vietnam in 2013 and Taiwan in 2014, but it felt wonderful to be out there again, experiencing and exploring and learning. Our trip there also made me realize a few things; I will elaborate on that later.

To prepare for the trip, we sought advice and recommendations from friends who had lived there and who are currently living there. My son's Spanish teacher also is from Bogota and gave us a lot of good advice. My husband brushed up on his Spanish, but I didn't bother. We both had been fluent in Spanish many, many years ago -- he had taken four years of classes while I had had six years of classes in school -- but it's been over 20 years since we used the language, so I knew that a few days of studying wasn't going to help me. My husband, though, was able to hold basic conversations with the locals while we were there, which helped tremendously as most people spoke very little English. It took me a while, but after our time there, I was beginning to understand more, though it still felt very strange to speak it again. Then, when we first got there, we started speaking Thai again! I don't know what it is with Spanish and Thai, but we constantly get those two mixed up, speaking Spanish when we should be speaking Thai and vice versa. It was pretty funny.

Our first activity and one of the highlights of our trip was a graffiti/street art tour we took our first full day there. It was a wonderful way to see the city, learn about its history, and the issues that it's dealing with. The tour was free (imagine that!), but it was very well-done and our tour guide was very knowledgeable. She was German and had been living in Bogota for 3 1/2 years. Our tour group was very diverse -- there were people from all over the world, including a couple from Seattle who used to live in Washington, D.C. We walked around the city for 2 1/2 hours, learning about how street art began in Bogota. Bogota has a vibrant street art scene -- there are 3000 to 5000 artists in Bogota creating street art, so our tour guide focused only on the prominent artists, some of whom are world-renowned. The art is used to promote art itself, but also to bring awareness to and protest against some of the social and political issues in Colombia, such as poverty, homelessness, the living conditions of the indigenous people, industrialized farming, and violence against women. Of course, among the country's many problems is the U.S., which has its hands in so many things all over the world. The more we learn about our country from those abroad, the more we're embarrassed to identify as Americans.

All the art was so interesting and vibrant. There were so many different styles, from paint to stencils to paste-ups. Because artwork is often painted over quickly, a piece of street art is considered old if it's six years old.

Our tour guide told us of the origin of the legality of street art in Colombia: In 2011, a 16-year-old boy who called himself Felix the Cat was doing street art in Bogota. At the time, street art was illegal there, so the police came to stop him. He ran away from the police, who shot the boy and killed him. The police officer who shot him didn't receive any consequences for killing him. The people of Bogota were outraged, and were further inflamed when, shortly thereafter, Justin Bieber flew into Bogota with his own private entourage and blocked off a street just so HE could do "street art." And what did he spray paint on the walls of the city? A f*cking marijuana leaf. Then he left, with no consequences. The locals, of course, were completely beside themselves given the disparity in treatment between the two street artists (using this term loosely for JB, of course) just because of the differences between their social and financial statuses. They quickly painted over JB's "art," protested and petitioned, and finally, a law was passed to legalize street art and protect street artists. The police officer who killed Felix the Cat was punished for his actions.

We also had an opportunity to visit a salt cathedral in Zipaquir√°, which is about an hour's drive north of Bogota. It is an underground Roman Catholic church built within the maze of tunnels of a salt mine. Through our hotel, we hired a driver for the day to take us to a local market, then to the salt cathedral, and back to our hotel. The market was very extensive, with food stalls and vendors selling all kinds of vegetables and fruits, eggs, meat, fish, flowers, and household items. We were the only tourists there. Because it was Christmas Eve, the market was full of people buying food for holiday celebrations. There was so much energy there.

The drive to the salt cathedral was beautiful, with mountains and fields along the way. We got to know about our driver a little bit, using what Spanish we knew to converse with him. Once at the salt mine, we explored the grounds a little before going underground. We fell behind a Spanish-language tour and just followed the group, understanding only a little bit of what was being said. It was only on our way out, after running into an English-language tour group, that we realized there were tours given in different languages. It was a pretty funny experience.

The salt cathedral was amazing, lit up with lights that changed colors. There were giant, elaborately carved crosses, chapels, and sanctuaries with rows and rows of pews; beautiful statues and carvings of angels and other religious symbols; and religious artifacts from different parts of the world. After the tour that we didn't understand, we had lunch outside, overlooking the mountains. Our driver then drove us to the main town square, so we could walk around and take photos. It was so quaint and charming. So many people were out enjoying Christmas Eve festivities. Unlike the U.S., Christmas Eve seemed to be an actual holiday with most places closed.

Another excursion was going to the top of Monserrate, which we did by taking the telef√©rico (cable car). It was really cool, but a little nerve-racking to be in a glass enclosure so high up. The view at the top of the mountain was gorgeous, with a church and pathways all decked out for Christmas. After coming down from the mountain, we went to a Mexican restaurant that we saw on our graffiti tour (for the street art on its facade), where we had really good and different limonada, fajita, enchilada, and quesadilla.


In between those big outings, we also meandered among the narrow streets of La Candelaria, a historic neighborhood, with its quaint and charming European-style buildings and cobble-stone walkways. We felt as if we were really in Europe. We also took in a few museums, the magnificent churches and government buildings; happened upon and enjoyed a chaotic, but vibrant, street festival packed with Christmas revelers; and sat on the steps of plazas to people-watch and bask in the brilliant sunlight and blue sky. We ate amazing food such as tamales, empanadas, ajiaco, avocados, enchiladas, and chocolate con queso (hot chocolate with cheese). And everywhere we went, curious Colombians looked at us. On our flight there, I sat next to a young woman from Colombia going home to visit her family. She told me that people in Bogota were unfriendly and rude, like Americans, so I was expecting American-like manners. But we didn't find that to be the case at all. People were polite, friendly, and helpful. They were also very good-natured and understanding when we mangled our Spanish. I found the Colombians there to be easy-going and likable. 

Before the trip, I felt ambivalent and reluctant about it, as if I had never been out of the country before. I was nervous about being in a country for which there seemed to be so many safety precautions to be taken. But after getting there, it was like I was home again. I realized how contracted my world had become again already, after only six months, and how unaware of this change I was; it happened slowly, over time, and was hard to detect. Being back in the suburbs of the U.S., with no culture and no stimulation of any kind, my mind shrank and my mentality had already changed a bit. Being in Bogota, I felt myself come alive and become energized again. I was interested and stimulated. I could see the same thing happening to my son: the light came back on in his eyes, and he was taking everything in, asking questions, engaged, writing his heart out in his journal, which he hadn't done in a few months. It was an unexpected, but amazing, transformation that occurred almost immediately, even after spending just a few days there. Then, after getting home, I felt the same transformation in the opposite direction happen again, almost immediately. It was then that I realized I no longer have a viable future in the U.S. and that we will have to leave it again. There are just too many things I can no longer deal with in this country and too many things I long for that are not here. While living in the U.S. has its positives -- most of them related to the conveniences and resources that it can offer -- they are outweighed by the considerable number of negatives, in my opinion. Maybe I'm seeing life abroad through rose-colored glasses at this point, but we hope to test out our thinking in the next year or two!

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