BOGOTA, Colombia — We were lost. Only 15 minutes after stepping off our Avianca flight, and 90 minutes of driving through Bogota’s jungly rush hour traffic (which makes New York City look like Fargo) were slightly misplaced. Moments before, our taxi driver informed me that the address I’d slipped him — the apartment building our high school friend was living in — on a torn piece of paper upon entering his cab, did not exist.
To say we were panicky might be overdoing it. Attentive is a better description; certainly on our toes and with our heads on a swivel. In the days leading up to our trip, I’d stumbled across an old joke Colombians like to tell:
God had made their land so beautiful, so rich in every natural way, that it was unfair to the rest of the world. He evened the score by populating it with the most evil race of men.
And this is where we were lost. Two tiny dots in a city of eight million people. But today’s Colombia is a million miles away from where it was in the 90s and decades before that. The government is more than stable compared to that of its South American neighbors, crime is considerably down, and foreign relations with countries such as the United States have never been better.
Our driver, a man in his 20s with a boyish face hid behind an unkempt beard, turned and smiled. In broken English he told me not to worry, then drove us to a nearby convenience store to use a pay phone. Not expecting this dilemma, neither of us had change in our pockets, rendering that option useless.
Our driver, who followed us into the store, began telling the husband and wife behind the counter our story and the couple quickly offered us their cell phone. We called our friend, solved the problem (the real address was about 45 minutes away), and the five of us shared a quick laugh.
That last part sounds strange. Patience was replacing annoyed eye rolls, flat out refusal of service, and even a threatening gesture or two. It just didn’t seem like the appropriate reaction: We were looking for Times Square in the middle of Staten Island.
“Lo siento, lo siento,” we pleaded over and over again, to which our driver responded with his unchanged smile and a gentle wave of the hand.
While in Colombia I stayed in the cities of Cartagena and Bogota. The first being the country’s very own Miami, the second, its mixture of New York City and Washington D.C. What was most evident upon leaving each was that right now, the nation’s perception is drastically, and unfortunately, far from its reality.
To most citizens of the United States who are older than 30, Colombia is as notorious a country as exists. Its most famous citizen once blew up a commercial airliner; Less than 25 years ago, city judges perished in car bombs on a daily basis; its country side is infested with FARC rebels and Guerilla Soldiers armed with AK-47s; and in a game of word association, the most synonymous utterance to the very word “Colombia” would be cocaine, the country’s most noted export. A drug that’s ruined as many lives as there are grains of sand on a small beach.
Despite its threatening reputation and homing a citizenry that ranks behind Sudan as the second highest displaced population in the world, in 2008 Colombia was named the third happiest country in the world from a University of Michigan study by its Institute for Social Research.
How can a nation scarred by some of the most horrendous, crippling violence the world has seen stake claim to the happiest citizens? The question falls short of vexing, but remains unanswerable. Is it the women or weather? The appreciated fruits and beautiful landscape? Is the answer nurtured in a family oriented and overtly religious culture?
To trap a universal definition for happiness under your thumb is impossible, but the behavior I witnessed certainly reflected the studies to be true.
Nestled between the Andes mountains to the east and Bogota River to the west, South America’s third largest city is made up of over 20 districts and 1000 neighborhoods. The city’s streets run on a grid, making everything easy to find; basically, if you can count, you can navigate Bogota.
Above the bustling streets is an unchanging atmosphere. With clouds rolling in over the eastern mountains almost every day, the city’s temperature dances between 60 and 70 degrees throughout the year.