January 10, 2023

First Day Back: Opening the Veins of Bogotá

Note: This is part of a series I'm doing as I travel through Latin America, noting down my observations and thoughts. You can sign up for the posts as they come here.

Back in Chaos


I write this perched on the fourth floor of an improbably slim restaurant in the La Candelaria area of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city. On my plate is Calentado, made up of beans, rice, onion, plenty of sausage, and a big fried egg. Outside there’s a cacophony of sound echoing through the alleyways cloistered by close-knit colonial style buildings which flank the Plaza de Bolivar, as well as sitting brick to brick with the Botero and Gold Museums. A short walk situates you in a thriving street market, with vendors selling sweet treats and drinks from small carts that blast reggaeton and modern Latin pop.

My first day back in Latin America in almost exactly 9 years, I felt a buoyancy as I walked, biked and ran through the city (despite the need to wheeze out some high altitude hyperventilation at regular intervals), remembering the excitement I felt the first time I was here. I took my first day solo, avoiding too much interaction with fellow hostel guests, needing to recuperate energy, walk and watch and listen to people, and to collect my thoughts. I knew the long chats would come over where people have been, where we're going next, what the best spot is for a cocktail and, inevitably, that one guy who insists on desperately justifying his newly found cocaine habit.

The chaos, complexity, fun loving and tenacious attitude of the city reminds me of what attracted me back to Colombia, and characterises much of Latin America to me. But, as I read Eduardo Galeano’s magnum opus, Open Veins of Latin America, I’m reminded just how much the present is reflecting the past. I very much stand out as a gringo here, perhaps identified by my (now departing) blond hair, or fair skin which contrasts to the primarily indigenous-descended population, perhaps also my choice of shorts on a humid 12 degree day. Of Latin America’s 70 million people who made up the Pre-Columbian "Indian" population, just 3.5 million remained a hundred and fifty years after the occupation by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors. This was made possible and profitable by the ready supply of Flemish, English, Italian, Dutch and French trade. All were complicit in the pillaging of the continent, which continues to suffer political and economic turmoil and interference from a collection of foreign powers, corporations, and banks.

Indeed as I walk through the streets I see a contrast to the cities I’ve been to most recently in Europe: Berlin, Zurich, London and Madrid. While all cities inhabit a variety of flavours and aesthetics, flitting between order, beauty and drab - bringing about the variety and cultural intensity that makes up a good metropolis - Bogotá feels like a capital in a struggle to meet its high altitude and elevate itself into a place that is vibrant, liveable, safe and protective of those many who have been left behind in the country's ferocious and violent march towards "progress". More on this later.

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