On Wednesday, March 24th I woke up in Bogotà, Colombia. I immediately felt tired, thirsty, hungry and incredibly excited. Ahead of me were what I knew were going to be the first, and most intense hours of my entire experience. The first 48h are always insane: you don’t know the place and you need to get the most important things done — at least I did, as on the next day I would start working. While still in bed, I quickly answered a couple of messages — mostly of my family and of some worried friends (Have you landed? All good? By the way, what are you doing in Bogotà?), took a shower, and got ready for my first day in Bogotà. Still, I didn’t feel full of energy as I wished I would. I was struggling breathing and I had a strong headache…and that’s where Iearned the first thing about Bogotà.
- What soroche is – and how to deal with it
Soroche, how they call it here, is a mild form of altitude sickness. It is linked to the fact that the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere decreases with altitude. Each breath we take contains less oxygen and consequently less oxygen reaches the blood — and therefore our body tissues. It happens in Bogotà because the city is located 2.625 meters above the sea level…the most common symptoms in the first 24-48 hours, that is, when the body is working to adapt to such low oxygen levels, include headache, fatigue, Loss of appetite, nausea, dizziness, insomnia. They normally disappear after the first 48h. In my case, 24 hours, probably because I did something about it. I drank as much water as possible, in small sips and spreaded throughout the day. I didn’t do physical exercise and took it easy. But especially… I drank several cups of coca leaves tea. This greenish yellow tea is traditionally drunk in the Andes region covering Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia to prevent soroche. And it works.
- Security-wise: What precautions to take to avoid problems.
Walking around the street to the supermarket, I felt safe. However, I also felt I needed to keep a low profile so to be safe.
Bogotà’s safety standards are definitely different from average European ones. I knew it before leaving, after all it wasn’t my first time in Latin America. Here you need to take care of yourself, and of your belongings. Colombia is mostly known for the thousands of cases of kidnapping in the early 70s, introduced by the guerrilla movements and, later, also by criminal groups such as FARC and drug cartels. Yet, today in the relatively central areas of Bogotà this doesn’t normally happen, especially if you are a tourist. However, pickpoteing and mugging is more frequent, because you are a tourist. That’s why it’s important to listen to the advice of local friends and avoid going to particularly precarious areas; don’t walk at night, whenever you are; try not to hold your phone in the street, and keep a low profile (avoid visible jewels, fancy bags etc). Be careful.
- Weather: wear lawyers and always bring an umbrella
The average temperature in Bogotà is quite constant, from 7 to 20 degrees. That’s because Bogotà has a mix of oceanic and a warm-summer Mediterranean climate. Dry and rainy seasons alternate throughout the year. The driest months are December, January, July and August. For example, in April it rains a bit everyday. Because the weather is very unpredictable, always wear a waterproof jacket and shoes. On my way back home from the supermarket, I ended up soaked. Lesson learnt.
- Prices: cheap compared to Average European standards
Very, very cheap. I paid my first meal in a restaurant for 10k COL$ (=2.5 EUR). For an uber ride of 20 minutes, 15k COL$ (3EUR). For a one hour long suburban bus, 6.5k COL$ (1.5 EUR). As a general rule, 1COL$= 0,00023EUR.
- Using uber: why you need to sit in the front
As a result of a long legal battle between the tech giant and local taxi drivers, since January 2020 UBER is illegal in the country. Yet, it is still operating in a legal grey area – and it is very much used. Even government officials use the platform, tells me Miguel, the first Uber driver I meet. In a nutshell, the app is in use and it works like in every other country except for 1 thing: you are asked to sit in the front passenger seat when taking an Uber, so to reduce the risk of being stopped by police. I read stories of people, once stopped by the police, coming up with stories about being friends with the driver in order to avoid fines.
- Do not flash water paper! Throw it in the bin instead
Yes, you read it right… in Colombia (like in many other countries where I’ve been to such as Brasil, Greece and Macedonia) people must not trash toilet paper. This is because most of the country has septic systems and old creaky pipes. You will find an elegant bin aside the toilet… you need to use it.
- Someone is going to do it for you:
When I first entered the building where I work, a person asked me what floor I was going to go to, and called the elevator for me. That’s her job.
Again, at the check out at the supermarket, the attendant would fill in my bags with the products I bought. Thanks, very kind of you.
Yet I could not stop thinking about the theory of David Graeber, one of my favorite anthropologists, on what he calls “bullshit jobs“. He defines bullshit jobs as “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” I will need more time to figure out the deepest roots to this phenomenon in Colombia. 48 hours in Bogotà are definitely not enough.