Doin the Rain Dance and Other First Impressions of Bogotá

I’ll start with a few complaints about the weather. While it may sound petty to complain about the weather in a city, hear me out: the extreme drought situation came as a surprise to me, and the conditions are greatly affecting my experience in the city so far. Here’s what’s going on with this weather weirdness:

Expectation: the weather in Bogotá is perfect sweater-weather all year round. It is typically chilly and rains regularly, often with mid-afternoon downpours. Friends had warned me if I wanted warmer, sunny days to check out Medellin, but with all of the cultural activity in Bogotá, I knew I had to spend some time in the capital and put up with whatever the weather would be.

Reality: this place is so hot and dry (at least it has been this week), and I’ve gotta wear pants to blend in with the locals (the only people I’ve seen in shorts, skirts, or capris were gringas, who really stood out). I was very pleased the first day I was here when the sun was out all day, since I was mentally preparing myself for a gloomy city, but wearing jeans in the heat and dealing with the dryness and nastiness of the air has taken its toll. The weather can change at a moments notice, going from 70F and sunny down to 55F with a strong breeze–this happens in the middle of the day quite randomly. It is completely normal for the mornings and evenings to be 50F with a breeze and midday be 75F with sun beating down relentlessly. Little downpours also happen without much warning, but I’ve only experienced one small one so far. I pray for rain to clear the air a bit, bringing me to my next big weather surprise of the city…

Expectation: the pollution can’t be that bad. Mexico City has a reputation for terrible pollution and it rarely bothered me or was even noticeable in my neighborhood, so Bogotá (a city half the size of DF) must have clearer air, right?

Reality: this city has the worst pollution I have ever experienced. To be fair to Bogotá, everyone is telling me the air quality is exceptionally bad right now. Apparently, the city is going through one of its worst droughts in history, and it’s hard not to be made aware of the consequences. Walking on La Séptima, one of the main thoroughfares on which many old buses run, is suffocating; my head starts to hurt within minutes, and with every puff of black exhaust from a bus or car, I can feel dust accumulating and coating the back of my throat, and, as if this weren’t enough, little particles of dirt and ashes from forest fires (breaking out and uncontrollable in many green areas surrounding the city because of the dryness) cover me within seconds. As I was sitting in an outdoor cafe, writing in my notebook about an inspiring exhibit (writing up a post about it soon!), I paused from writing to look back at quick snapshots of favorite works I’d taken on my phone. When I went back to writing only minutes later, the notebook was covered in dirt, the white pages turned grey with a thick layer of gunk.

Sunny Day 1 in Bogota
Taken on my first day in Bogotá, I was thrilled that the whole day was sunny since I had been warned it was a gloomy city. 

 

When I checked the 10-day forecasts for Bogotá before arriving, I was excited to see so many sunny days, but now I am full-on doing the rain dance with the rest of the bogotanos; this city badly needs rain in order for it to be safe and comfortable for residents. Conditions were so bad today that many institutes and schools, especially those located higher up where a dense layer of smoke has permeated the air, were evacuated, students and workers sent home so they wouldn’t have to be so exposed to the terribly polluted air. I retreated to my AirBnB with my head pounding to find that my host’s work had closed early because of the air, and she took me shopping for linens for my new apartment. It turns out the other bogotanos had the same idea of what to do indoors for a few hours since the air was toxic, and the mall was swamped. Crossing my fingers that the forecast for rain tomorrow holds to be true; I’m ready to get back outside, exploring neighborhoods and getting to know the city.

Speaking of exploring the city, I quickly learned that many resources I typically rely on for navigating don’t work in Bogotá, or they work differently here.

Expectation: Bogotá is a big enough city that, like DF, Yelp and GoogleMaps will have lots of information about great spots to eat and which stores to find what. I’ll just “star” places to go on GoogleMaps, and I’ll be set to explore and get myself oriented.

Reality: My first night here, immediately after a late arrival to my AirBnB, when I should have been sleeping, I was thinking about food for the next day (my mom will be the first to say that I’ve always been this obsessed with food, thinking before bed about all of the meals for the next day, and often dreaming about them, too). But when I pulled up Yelp to start the hunt for a breakfast spot nearby, I learned that Yelp hasn’t come to Colombia yet. In Mexico City it was mainly tourists who wrote reviews, but I could still get a sense of different places and most restaurants and cafes had entries, even if they only had several reviews. GoogleMaps at least ostensibly works in Bogotá…From my experiences using GoogleMaps thus far, I’d say 80-90% of businesses are not listed on GoogleMaps or are listed with incorrect addresses. I learned this the hard way on my first day, when I was heading to a cultural center using GoogleMaps only to walk in circles around the blocks where GoogleMaps indicated it should be until finally checking the website of the center and learning the center was actually a mile away. Luckily, I had allowed lots of time to get there before an event, but since then, I’ve double checked every address, which is pretty tiresome, but since so many places are mis-listed in GoogleMaps, the double-check is definitely worthwhile. The lack of entries in GoogleMaps is also frustrating for me since I have become accustomed to some of the features of GoogleMaps; I love to “star” locations on GoogleMaps as reminders of places I read about want to visit (I have many cafes “starred” so that if I’m ever in the neighborhood and looking for a place to eat and recharge nearby, I can just open GoogleMaps and see what I’ve “starred”), but you can only “star” business or places labeled with their business name for existing entries in GoogleMaps.

Expectation: I’ve heard the TransMilenio is confusing, but I’ve learned public transit systems in countless cities. I’m sure some time with a map will clarify things, and I’ll be hopping around the city in no time.

Reality: I totally underestimated how complicated the TransMilenio was. Here goes the rant. There aren’t really maps of the complete system as it turns out, since there are too many different lines with unique routes to be listed in a single map. I have yet to understand the color and numbering system and have a vague idea about how the lettering works. Instead of having a sense of the whole system, I’ve been relying on an app called MoovIt, where, like GoogleMaps, you enter your starting point and destination and the apps tells you which buses you can use. (It turns out this is how most bogotanos know which bus to take the first time they are going to a particular place, but I still hope that at some point I’ll be able to navigate to an unfamiliar place without blindly following what the app tells me.) Determining the appropriate bus number is only the first difficulty. Next, you have to manage the design of the stations (if that particular bus coming to a station and not just picking up off a stop on the street). First, entering the stations can be complicated because you have to cross to the median, and sometimes there are straightforward cross-walks, but often on the larger roads, there are pedestrian walkways that go above traffic of underground, and there is little signage and above ground there can be ridiculously long and/or winding ramps to cross to the station. Once you enter the station, you have to find your bus, and many stations run the length of several blocks with particular buses only stopping at certain points along the platform. Basically, it’s not uncommon to see the station 50m away from you but walk for 10 minutes to actually enter the station and get to the appropriate place on the platform. Getting on the bus is its own adventure of pushing and squeezing into small spaces. And the adventure doesn’t stop once you’re on the bus. Unlike in Mexico City which has women’s only cars and designated seats for the elderly which are widely respected, the TransMilenio doesn’t differentiate between parts of the bus. There are some differently colored seats for pregnant women and the elderly, but these are not always offered without prompting. Finally, the TransMilenio can get stuck in traffic, to my surprise. Many lines of the TransMilenio run exclusively in separate lanes, but there are also newer lines that run on streets where a separate lane was not established, so the buses merge with traffic for large parts of the line.

Expectation: If public transit is too annoying to deal with for some places I want to go, I can always rely on uber, my familiar friend, for a comfortable ride.

Reality: Uber does exist here and it’s been reliable for the most part. But it is different from using it in the US or DF. With every uber I’ve taken in Bogotá so far, the driver has gestured for me to sit in the front seat. While very different from what I’m used to, normally relegated to the back seat in a cab, I really like being up front and able to see everything, especially since I’m still seeing so much of the city for the first times.

I know that most of these “impressions” were complaints, so I should clarify that I’m actually enjoying a lot about Bogotá so far, especially exploring the various neighborhoods with their distinct personalities. From the research I did about Bogotá, I expected to love the city, so most of these surprising impressions were small, but unanticipated inconveniences or letdowns (the air quality has certainly been an unpleasant surprise and created strange conditions to meet a city for the first time). There are also plenty of impressions of things that are better than expected as well as some that are simply different, and that I wouldn’t label as either better or worse than I expected, and I’ll write more about these later.

 

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