"Warning. Pickpockets and thieves are notorious in Bogota. Watch your money and valuables closely; don't wear personal jewelry, take your glasses off if you can see without them, and never walk into a crowd." [emphasis added]Before leaving for the trip, we came across the above quote in the travel guide that Kristin's parents took to South America when they were about our age. I'm not sure whether I was more shocked by the quote itself or by the fact that Kristin's parents still chose to visit Bogota at the time after reading it. Judging by the fact that nobody has relieved of us of our designer prescription sunglasses and seeing as that we interact with crowds daily, it's probably safe to say the situation has improved over the years.
That said, it's still difficult to know how safe Bogota really is. For all that you hear about the city and Colombia in general, I am happy to say that I have not been concerned for our personal safety since we arrived, and it's probably not because the Sidney Crosby playoff beard I've been growing cloaks me with an aura of invincibility. To date, the only violence we've witnessed is the daily beatdowns our egos are taking in Spanish class. I note, however, that we are staying near a wealthy area of Bogota, we avoid certain areas of the city (as one likely should do in any large city) and we try to limit how much we walk around at night.
Despite our positive experience (and I'm eager not to jinx that), there are certainly signs that security remains a major concern for everyday bogotanos. First off, the police and military are seemingly everywhere and can often be found packing serious heat. Obviously there's a reason for their presence and perhaps it should be more alarming, but seeing them actually makes me feel more safe in the city (plus, as these pictures show, it's fun to play with their weapons).
Secondly, for many homes and businesses, it seems like there is a strong desire to double up on security features. High walls are topped with razor wire, barbed-wire fences give way to heavily-barred windows and locked gates are backed by private security guards. It's sort of like guard dogs with bees in their mouth and when they bark they shoot bees at you (... anybody?). Speaking of dogs, there are plenty of the drug and/or bomb sniffing variety around offices and government buildings and many more throughout the city that would appear to specialize in maiming and/or killing.
The most difficult elements to reconcile are between what we often see and do and what we are advised to do when speaking with bogotanos themselves. A couple of "for instances":
- Every day we take a public bus to and from Spanish lessons. On the days where we can fit into the bus (and there have been days when we cannot stand upright), it is an enjoyable and very interesting way to live like the locals. Another student in our class is from Boston and is spending the summer with her extended family here in Bogota. Her family is not comfortable letting her ride the same bus route that we do and insists that she take a taxi in each direction.
- We like walking around the neighbourhood where our Spanish lessons are held, but our school has a gate around the building that is locked at all times. When we arrive, we ring the buzzer and somebody comes and opens the gate for us and locks it behind us. When we want to leave, we have to ask somebody to let us out. The lady running school said she would not walk in that area at night even though it is known to have a large student population, which I typically equate with a higher level of safety.
- Although I would estimate there are about a trillion taxis in Bogota and we see locals flagging them down frequently, most of the locals we speak with advise us never to get into a cab from the street. Instead, the recommended practice is to call the cab companies directly so they can give you the number of the cab (written on the side of the vehicle) that will pick you up, thus ensuring you actually head home and not to an ATM to make a withdrawal for the "cab" driver.
Obviously, these are some very cursory observations in respect of a very complex topic, but they constitute my two cents after almost three weeks here. Contrary to any concerns I might have had, I have found the people to be welcoming and inquisitive. To anybody who visited Bogota in the 1970s and did so without their glasses, you should come back and check it out with your unhindered vision. It really is quite beautiful here and the crowds are often the best part.