Goodwill Hunting in The Candelaria, Bogota

The Candelaria is the place where the “Tomato Bait Trick” first got its roots in Bogota. The usual price of a tomato in Colombia is 200 pesos or $.10USD. But when a tourist goes into a grocery store owned by gutter snipes the tourist is charged 1,500 pesos ($.80USD) for a tomato. Most tourists are happy to pay this amount and actually shake the grocer’s hand after the sale. The problem occurs when the same tourist goes into the same grocery store a week later and buys the same tomato and is charged 200 pesos the second time. This has the effect of making the tourist so enraged with anger that he runs through the store opening all the cans of tuna and throwing them in the grocer’s face.Image

The heart of the Old Town (also known as the Candelaria) is on 11th Street. This is pretty much ground zero in Bogota in terms of universities, government buildings, The Presidential Palace (La Casa de Nariño) and cathedrals. I have a friend named Dennis in Candelaria who is renting a room one block from the President’s house for $15OUSD a month. There are armed guards that sit out in front of his house at all hours of the day and the street in front of his house gets blockaded against traffic every day after 6pm. Where else can you live and get Presidential armed guards sitting out in front of your house for $150USD a month?  Dennis says the only design flaw is the fact the Presidential Palace is located right in the heart of the downtown. For security purposes it would be better served to be twenty minutes outside of Bogota. On the other hand, if this was the case he would lose his armed guards so he’s not sweating it too much.

Kudos to the police force and private security in Bogota. In no other place in the world can you run into 50 cops standing in the middle of every main square, 3 at every bus stop, 1 in front of every ATM and 1 or 2 on every bridge.  The police force in Bogota’s best attribute is just to be present everywhere. They are always ready to give directions or assist you in any way possible. Who says they are paid just to stand around? The best way to prevent crime is just to have police everywhere even if they aren’t actually doing anything besides helping old ladies cross the street. Who says they have to do anything at all? I say they are doing a great deed just by getting up in the morning, putting on their reflective jackets and standing next to me while I am waiting for a bus. People in Bogota should be required to tip the cops 5% of their salaries.

On 22nd Street is the US Embassy. As you walk up to the Embassy 40 or 50 guys on the other side of the street will start yelling at you, “Fotocopias, LLamadas, Forumularias!” (Photocopies, phone calls, official forms). After you show the doorman your passport and appointment password number, you will be allowed to enter the compound. The US Embassy is one of the few places where chickens are allowed to roam freely in the city. In this respect the USA really took their job seriously of researching local customs and doing their best to merge with the landscape. Once you get past the chickens the Embassy is all business. Many of the light have rotating lampshades on them that film everything which is going on in the compound. All the security gates are guarded by men with shotguns and behind the gates are safety ramps that look like open drawbridges you to thwart would be assailants that ram their way past the gate. Any vehicle wanting to get past the gate is pulled over first, the trunk of the car is opened, the back doors opened and the rear seats are  thoroughly checked, a mirror on wheels is slid underneath the car and the hood is popped and the engine is examined. After the car is parked, the person then needs to go through two sets of metal detectors. Each of the metal detector areas have massive doors that weigh at least 1,000 pounds. When swinging these doors open and shut you feel as if you are entering a nuclear submarine. Once yo get passed the metal detectors you are in the waiting area. There are two lines in this area, one for American citizens which usually has at most 20 people in line. Then there is the line for everyone else that  looks like the will call window for Rolling Stones tickets.Image

On 34th Street is located the main Planned Parenthood Clinic of Bogota (or “Profamilia” in Spanish). With 34 clinics nationwide, Profamilia is a major provider of family planning and other sexual and reproductive health services in Colombia. Its services, which make up 70% of the country’s family planning capacity, includes contraceptives, fertility treatment, breast exams and mammograms, Pap smears, pregnancy test, STI (Sexually Transmitted Infections) and HIV prevention and testing, gender-based violence screening and referral, abortion, HPV vaccination, and cervical, uterine, and breast cancer prevention programs.

Profamilia offers subsidized, youth-friendly services in centers specifically dedicated to young people. They have over 1,500 active peer educators who have received intensive training in order to provide sexual health information to other young people in schools and youth centers. Profamilia’s youth programs encourage young people’s involvement at all stages of program planning and implementation. It also has two youth members on its Board of Directors.

Profamilia has an extremely high profile in the country. The government frequently asks for its opinions on sexual and reproductive health issues in Colombia, and Profamilia is a frequent source of information for nationwide media. In 2009, Profamilia was part of a coalition that opened the first LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community center in Bogotá. Their advocacy efforts convinced the Mayor of Bogotá to open and fund three other LGBT centers in the capital city.

On 50th Street there is a business that seems to be from the “Wally and the Beaver” generation. Who would have thought that in this day and age there would be a need for a vacuum cleaner clinic? But true to the spirit of Latin America and their love for using items log ago deemed outdated in other societies (i.e. Nintendo Entertainment Systems, Polaroid cameras, cassette players, floppy discs) in Bogota there is a Vacuum Cleaner Clinic (Casa de las Aspiradoras in Spanish). Having one of these businesses in Bogota is a testament to Colombia’s loyalty to obsolete technology. I myself enjoy partaking in the same behavior, I still make my own mix tapes and play them in my 1993 Ford Ranger.

So, luckily for you, if you are the kind of person who enjoys actually fixing things instead of throwing them away and buying a new one. Be sure to bring your broken vacuum cleaner with you on your next trip to Bogota.

As you travel towards the North of Bogota the street numbers increase. Located on 54th Street is El Campin Stadium where the most famous football team in Colombia plays “Los Millionarios.” When the team was formed in 1946 a million pesos was probably a good amount of money. Now-a-days to be a millionaire in Colombian pesos isn’t quite as prestigious as in past years. 1,000,000 Colombian pesos now-a-days is only worth $552USD currently. Maybe a better option in terms of long term value would be to name the team the “Owners of Beachfront Property.” By the time you are North of 76th Street the condition of the roads improves, there are less Goodwill Hunting types walking the streets and hardly are stray animals. The famous Red Light District starts around 82nd Street and this part of the city is full of high end tattoo parlors, Hooters Restaurants, Dominos Pizzas and as well as the headquarters of the Discovery Channel for Colombia.

On 97th Street you come to the Americo Vespucio statute. If you are traveling by bus past this statute you will want to get a good look. Vespucio’s greatest accomplishment would probably to have ridden on the coattails of Christopher Columbus to the new world and have been the only person with enough common sense out of all the explorers to realize that the extent of South America was actually longer than they originally thought instead of the prevailing belief that there were two unconnected continents below North America. Even to this day, the number of his actual expeditions is sometimes disputed and shrouded in mystery.

Thus, if you take a close look at Vespucio’s statue, as you pass by bus, you will notice that the statue’s head is missing and full of graffiti. This is no doubt Bogota’s response to his lackluster career and a stern refusal to celebrate Europe’s pillaging of the new world.

“Just because you may have been the least dim-witted in a group of scurvy-ridden sailors, that still doesn’t win you a star on the walk of fame in the capital city,” the graffiti seems to retort. On the other hand it could just be random vandalism with no deeper meaning.

After staying in the Candelaria for a few weeks it was quite a shock to me to get in the Transmilenio to 145th Street and see nice buildings, well-maintained streets and new apartment buildings. In terms of US cities, I would say Candelaria is similar to Coney Island while Suba in Northern Bogota is similar to Westchester County (an affluent suburban area to the North of New York City).

Bogota’s history of mayors has been memorable. The current mayor, Gustavo Petro, most famous move has been to uphold the long-standing “Pico y Placa” (Peak and License Plate) law. This is an law that forbids cars with a license plate that ends with an odd number to drive on odd days of the month between 6.00am-8.30am and from 3.00pm-7.30pm. If the car’s license plate ends with an even number the same rule applies on even days. This law only applies from Monday through Friday.

Bogota even experimented with another law that banned drivers with less than two people in the car from circulating in the downtown part of Bogota (40th Street to 10th Street) between 6.30am-8am and from 5.30pm-7pm. Any solo driver caught driving in the downtown during this time was given a fine.  The law was a little ahead of its time and a lot of angry people made the government repeal this law.

The way to tell how well this law has worked is to get on the highways during the weekends. The traffic is easily twice as slow as during the week. Therefore making Bogota one of the few cities in the world where drivers actually save time getting on the highways during rush hour.

The second biggest issue in Bogota is the cell phone theft. The government has green lighted some high impact TV adds to combat the problem. The most famous one takes place in a woman’s apartment at 1am. Earlier that day she bought a 2nd hand phone from a street dealer at a price too good to be true. Later that night she gets a phone call at 1am. When she looks at the caller ID it is blank. When she answers the call, the receiver reverberates a shriek in a creepy high-pitched alien voice which knocks her back in bed and sends some shock waves through her bedroom.

Of all the mayors in the modern history of Bogota the most ahead of the curve was a mayor named Antannas Mockus. Just to have been elected mayor in the first place with a last name that sounds like “mocos” (boogers in Spanish) is a pretty impressive feat. Mockus not only has a strange Lithuanian name but he is also bearded and looks like an Amish Unabomber.

Despite of all the obstacles he served two non-consecutive terms as the mayor of Bogota from January 1st, 2001 – December 31st, 2003 and from January 1st, 1995 – December 31st, 1997.  During his time as mayor he was a stern proponent of highway safety.

Mockus’ first order of business when he was elected was to reduce the number of people getting run over by cars. In order to reduce the number of fatalities of pedestrians run over and killed by motorists he decided to place a star on the road in every place a pedestrian was killed by a motorist. After doing this many people were surprised to find out that the highest amount of fatalities occurred on the streets underneath pedestrian bridges. Muckus also hired thousands of mimes to simulate getting run over and killed at the busiest traffic lights in Bogota. I am not sure if the mimes threw themselves on top of stopped cars at the intersection and then died right there on the side of the road but would really be interested in seeing this project first hand. Muckus’ initiate had a dramatic effect in terms of making the public aware of the places they were most likely to get killed if they tried to make a mad dash across the highway. This initiative was also highly entertaining for people waiting at the red light on their way to work.

Muckus also wanted to increase the number of people wearing seatbelts in cars. In order to do this he approved the airing of a TV commercial showing the effects in slow motion of having a crash where 4 of the 5 passengers have their seatbelts on and the one person who doesn’t ends up bouncing around the car and killing the other passengers during a crash. He didn’t stop there. He was also very concerned about the number of DUI’s that were happening around the city. To try and reduce this number he placed crush cars (from drunk driving accidents) on the sides of all the major highways with mannequins inside. This initiative had the effect of outraging pretty much everyone in the city a severely cut down on the number of DUI deaths in Bogota.

When the country of Peru is mentioned, one imagines a peaceful scene of an Andean alpaca grazing along an Incan stone wall. When Ecuador is brought up, we imagine a rain forest panorama of frogs jumping off branches while butterflies mate in the background. When Colombia is mentioned, we envision a post-apocalyptic city full of overturned buses, being pillaged by men in ski masks. It is obvious which country any rational person would seek to avoid while searching for an internet bride.

“48,000,000 Colombians Can’t Be Wrong” is a true adventure story about a 37-year-old socially-awkward man who decided that the best way he could deal with a life sentence of microwavable burritos and 10-hour Facebook marathons was to look online for a girlfriend in Colombia and then hop on a flight to Colombia’s capital in pursuit of a woman he has never met.

During his first month in Bogota, Brian falls in with two white, self-assured backpackers who the author describes as, “…not the kind of guys who pump the brakes before going through an uncontrolled intersection.” He is then nearly kidnapped during an encounter with a woman he met online, almost becomes business partners with a Korean man in the “diamond business” and is forced to sleep in the DVD room of his hostel due to lack of funds.

Brian quickly regroups after his first month and auditions for the part of “congressional aide” in a Colombian feature film called “Left To Die.” He then lands a job as a writer for an English-language newspaper where his first interview is with a “suspected undercover CIA agent.” Brian then gets thrown off a TV set for refusing to take off his shirt from under his police uniform. While Brian is not getting thrown off TV sets, he marvels at all the discarded construction materials Colombians throw into pot holes to lessen their depths. Because of this strategy, a bus going over one of these open trenches (full of construction materials) will occasionally sling a chest-high brick through a group of panic-stricken pedestrians.

Brian sincerely believed this trip would put him on a track towards a life of excitement, intrigue and exotic women, far from his increasing first world debt. Instead, he unexpectedly falls into a job as an extra in a Colombian soap opera, has panic attacks, watches other gringos lose their marbles and blows half his paycheck on bootlegged DVD’s. Along the journey, he chronicles his friendships, the deranged ex-pats he meets, and his struggles/triumphs, including one fateful night in a Israeli restaurant that would change his life forever.

To view the complete book, “48,000,000 Colombians Can’t Be Wrong,” go to …*Version*=1&*entries*=0


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: