If you said to me in August, “By the middle of September, you’ll be riding through the streets of Bogotá, Colombia in a cab listening to Frank Sinatra’s version of Jingle Bells,” I’d likely have said, “I’ll believe you up until the Jingle Bells thing.”
Well, you would have been right and I would have been wrong. Because that’s exactly what I was doing day-before-yesterday.
As I rode to the airport at the end of the trip, the music shifted to a Neal Diamond classic, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” and I began to reflect on my time in this amazing (and often misunderstood) city.
A few weeks ago, I contacted a consulting company down in Colombia because we needed a partner to deliver our company’s services in Latin America. Our firm has known these people for awhile, but, because I hadn’t met them personally, I decided to go down to do so. One of my colleagues here in the States asked if I was going to Bug-otta? No. So let’s clear that up first:
It’s Bogotá, not Bug-otta. And, it’s Colombia. Not Columbia.
Anyway, I arrived late on Saturday evening, which left me with a free day on Sunday to explore the largest city in a country in which the US State Department encourages visitors, “to exercise caution and remain vigilant as terrorist and criminal activities remain a threat throughout the country. Explosions occur throughout Colombia on a regular basis, including some in Bogotá itself.”
So, that led me to wander out of my hotel alone and unarmed to explore the Ciclovía. What, you ask, is the Ciclovía? Each Sunday from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., many of the streets in downtown Bogotá are shut down to allow runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, and other exercisers to freely explore without fear of certain death from the unusually heavy and erratic traffic of the city. So, with nothing but my wits and a cell phone camera, I walked out of my hotel, rented a bike, and set off along the Carrera Séptima. After four hours, I’d seen a lot of the city, breathed in more than my share of soot, smelled the inevitable odor that results from cramming millions of people into a confined area (i.e., refuse), and earned a bad sunburn.
After that experience, I wanted to pick up a couple of gifts for friends. I did this with a visit to the Usaquén neighborhood, which on Sundays hosts a giant flea market. (As an aside, Sunday is the day to visit Bogotá — there’s a lot to do). People at the Usaquén market sell everything from Chinese copies of Colombian antiquarian treasures to genuine handmade crafts. I found a couple of things to buy including an intricate tree made from wire. I asked the vendor about it and her eyes got huge.
“How much?” I asked.
She stared back at me blankly. “Stella! Stella! Steelllllla!” she yelled. I half expected Marlon Brando to show up.
She kept yelling and eventually looked back at me, saying, “This made by someone else.” Her English outperforming my Spanish dramatically.
About that time, Stella arrived.
“Que?” she asked. Which was followed by a feverish and emotional exchange.
“How much?” I asked again.
“Uhhh. Errrr. 150,000. Es bery beautiful,” she told me.
She was right.
I nonchalantly reached for my cell phone and clicked on my trustworthy currency app. She wanted about US$75 for her creation.
Meanwhile Stella and her friend were looking at each other with expressions that could either have been…
- What kind of moron would actually buy this? or
- Can you believe I’m about to sell this thing of great beauty that I poured my heart and soul into?!?!?!
I’m an optimist and prefer to see the best in people so I choose to believe the second. Now, I’m not saying that US$75 isn’t a lot of money. It certainly is. But, to get a thing of great beauty that Stella poured her heart and soul into PLUS make (what I can only assume was) a significant impact on her financial situation was worth far more than seventy-five bucks to me. So I pulled out my cash and gave her 150,000 Colombian Pesos. I hope she’s still thinking about me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her.
With play time over, it was time to get to work.
“In the dark times, when the mob ruled this country, they would plant bombs in cars. That was like 15 years ago. Don’t worry, you’re safe,” said my host. I reflected on the State Department warning as a heavily armed man and his dog were checking our trunk for a pipebomb. We were cleared to drive on.
On several occasions, I began meetings with,
“Lo siento porque mi Español es muy mal.”
“I’m sorry, my Spanish is very bad.”
The language barrier made meetings difficult. But, they would have been impossible without my new companion, Andrés the omnipresent translator. Seriously, this dude never left my side. He even went to the bathroom with me. If you’re ever in Bogotá and in need of translation services, he’s your man. As a head’s up, you’ll need to ask him not to follow you into the bathroom.
Fast forward to my last night in town when I realized I needed to get that tree home. Unfortunately, Andrés had left us so it was just me and my mono-lingual hosts. After a few days of hearing nothing but Spanish, my language skills had improved (slightly). As a matter of context, my language skills have always been terrible. In fact, in college, I took Spanish. The final exam required us to have a seven minute conversation with our professor. At the end of mine, she told me:
“Señor, you have no grasp of this language at all. None. But your accent is incredible!”
So, with that memory floating through my mind, I asked my hosts…
“Necesito un caja, por favor.”
“I need a box, please.”
Thankfully, I got it right.
We stopped in a couple of stores whose proprietors looked at us with judgmental faces and single word responses: “No.” That one translates with ease. Finally, we stopped in a third store. There was an exchange I couldn’t even begin to understand.
So…my hosts grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out onto the street.
This, I thought, is how it all ends?
How do I call the State Department?!
Turns out, I had nothing to fear. They were running after the garbage man who was literally folding up boxes and putting them into a dumpster on wheels that he pushed along the sidewalk. We slipped him a couple of (hundred) pesos, and gained permission to dig through his trash cart. Again, had you told me a few weeks ago (err..make that an hour before) that I’d be digging through a Colombian trash cart, well…I don’t know what I would have thought. But, I’ll do virtually anything for this blog so I went all in. I mean, I was in a suit climbing through the garbage. I think the suit’s done for, but it was worth it for you, dear readers.
You’ll be relieved to know that I found a box and my treasure made it home. It serves as a reminder of the people I met in Colombia.
I work very hard to understand a little bit about the people I meet on every trip I take. It’s why I love travel so much. Because of the unique nature of this trip, I was able to meet some amazingly accomplished people. My hosts arranged for us to, among other things…
- Have lunch with faculty from one of Latin America’s leading business schools,
- Talk with senior business leaders about leading Colombian companies, and
- Meet people who are literally building this country.
And, my takeaway is that rarely have I come across a group so consistently dedicated to serving the greater good as Colombians. There’s a sense of national obligation that transcends our definition of patriotism. It’s not about placing a hand on your heart before a game. It’s not about fireworks on the Fourth of July. Instead, it’s about serving something outside of oneself. About building a country. Each business person I met said essentially the same thing, which was summed up very well by a CEO I met:
“Yes, I am interested in growing for my family, but I’m also doing this for my country. To grow Colombia and make it a better place.”
This uniquely Colombian trait is truly inspiring. I am so impressed with them that I can only hope they’ll remember me as something more than that American they saw dumpster diving.