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In Bogota, Colombia

I have this niece who two years ago left her cushy life in Oregon to teach English in Bogota, Colombia. Turns out she likes it a lot — teaching and Colombia. A big Christmas gathering recently brought her to our doorstep, but a few months back it was Son No. 3 knocking at hers. It was the last stop of his transcontinental tour, and she made it a memorable one.

For him, Colombia brought the “grass always looks greener on the other side” idiom to life: “I’d been on the other side of the equator, and they were coming out of winter at that point. So Argentina was rather brown, Chile was brown, Lima was brown and like a desert. Then I hit Bogota, Columbia, which is extremely close to the equator, and it was very green.”

Having his cousin there as a Spanish translator made a big difference. The first day they toured a coffee farm, or a “finca” as they call it. On the side of a lush mountain drizzled with one of Bogota’s daily rains, they picked coffee “cherries” the size of olives and ate them on the spot, spitting out the beans. They planted coffee plants and took part in an expert coffee-tasting session with a flight of five flavors.

“They taught us a lot about the right way to taste coffee. First, we smelled it. We couldn’t pick up the cups because they say oils in your hands affect the smell, so we bent over to do that. Then we sucked it up from a spoon so it goes over the entire tongue. That way you can taste bitter, salty, sweet. Some of their coffee even tasted fruity.” 

They also learned about the process of growing coffee and drying the beans. What it actually means to be a specialty coffee.  What altitude has to do with production. “A lot of cool stuff there,” he recalls, adding that they got to ride a horse at one of the farms. 

The next day they took a sky lift to a city overlook. He says it was staggering to see how large Bogota was: “I think it’s between 7, 8 million people. Huge.” Of all the photos he sent me on his travels — from monkeys on his shoulder to whales at his side — nothing struck me more than the one he took from that overlook. He’s leaning on an outcrop of rocks, and a blanket of clouds are suspended above streets crammed with buildings and neighborhoods as far as the eye can see.

Later, the Wanderer learned something surprising about those neighborhoods. Colombia has a version of a caste system called “estrato.” He explains, “There, your city of residence often dictates how you’re viewed, where you go to school, who you marry, your life. It’s part of their birth certificate.”

The notes he took in each country always include something about food. In Colombia, it was a traditional meal of tamales that rated a mention. At that restaurant he met a woman who told him she only recently came to view Pablo Escobar negatively.

“That’s when she watched some media reports from that time period — some Netflix documentaries — and she really got a better grasp of how terrible he was. But she said there are still many Colombians who see him as a Robin Hood-like person.”

Escobar is probably why Bogota was the most secure city Son No. 3 saw on his trip. During the drug wars, residents put bars on their doors and windows, and huge concrete fences around their houses. “They’re still in place, so it just makes you feel really odd, all these little secure compounds,” he remembers. “It felt safe, but there are tons of people begging as you walk by.”

And as you walk, he says, Bogota’s altitude will get your attention. “You get winded, but you adjust to that eventually.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.