How I Got Used to the Insecurity in Bogota
I have lived for about a year and a half in Bogota, and although I have grown to love this city more and more with each passing day, I’m saddened by an issue I recently noticed I have gotten used to: the insecurity in Bogota.
I’m not talking about a dramatic ‘fear for my life the minute I step out of the house’ kind of fear. No. I’m talking about a more subtle fear. City crime fear. Where everyone, anywhere can be a robber with nothing to lose and will do anything type of insecurity. It’s not something that’s at the top of the mind in which you constantly think about, at least not for the locals. Even worse, you’re so used to it, it constantly and silently lurks in the back of your head. An unconscious thought.
Let me begin by saying that I have always lived in developed countries and safe neighborhoods, where a 30-minute solo walk from the nightclub to my house at 3 AM was refreshing and therapeutic.
The first time I came here on vacation, I was shocked when people locked their car doors while driving. Or when I was told I should change out of my cute outfit to go to the center, or when we rode up Monserrate by funicular instead of by foot. Or that I shouldn’t talk on the phone in the street. Why couldn’t I be myself and do what I wanted? Aren’t I a free person?
NOOO, not in Bogota. It’s better not to ‘dar papaya’ as Colombians say. Give Papaya? Ahhh yes! you mean, give thieves the opportunity to steal from you. Not that it’s one’s fault when they get robbed. More than victim-blaming, it’s because we all know Colombians are vivos, a well-known trait of Colombian people. They will take advantage of any opportunity presented to them. An insult and a compliment at once.
At first glance, this saddened me. I was sad to see that people had to live that way. And worse is that it seemed normal to them. This fear and insecurity in Bogota are the norm…
Insecurity in Bogota is one of the biggest issues of this city, and upon living here, I became angry at having to incorporate daily safety precautions into my day to day. Why should I restrict myself and change who I am? My boyfriend would say, “take off your jewelry,” as he looked down at the gold and emerald necklace and matching earrings he got me. “Let them rob me!” I would say. It made me furious that I had to change little bits of myself in order to be left in peace.
My first year here, I took taxis in the street, despite being told otherwise and warned with the many horror stories. I noticed Colombians were far more scared than foreigners. I thought Colombians were stuck in the 80s-90s. I was sure I wouldn’t fall in the pattern of fear. At first, I still did the same things I used to do when I lived in other countries. But the changes and habits crept into my life little by little. Even if nothing has happened to me (knock on wood) I prefer to be safe than sorry. The fear was starting to sink in.
Not limited to over the past year, my Colombian family has experienced insecurity, and when they tell the stories of their misfortune, they tell it like it was an adventure. I’m horrified, if it were me, I’d be traumatized.
And slowly I began to change. Baby steps. I thought it would be better to do so that to find myself in a sticky situation. I replaced the emerald and gold necklace with silver and a cheap stone. I bought a coin purse to separate my bills like this I wouldn’t have to pull out my money all the time. I replaced my wallet by a flimsy one to make me look more humble.
I was taking small steps to make me fly under the radar and have me avoid any trouble. After a year and a half, I have gone through all my 4 stages of culture shock and what once saddened me when I first visited Bogota in 2008 now seemed normal to me. I am surprised at how I have gotten used these living conditions without realizing it. We adapt to our circumstances and situations so quickly!
A year ago, I was burdened by all the extra things I had to think about to try and stay safe. Today, they have become habits, incorporated in my day to day. They are things in which I no longer think about. Fear is my norm.
I’m sure many Colombians reading this will refute my message and say that Bogota is as safe and dangerous as any other capital in the world (REALLY?!). Because no good Colombian can stand foreign criticism against their country. And although I have grown to love Bogota more and more with each passing day, this is the reality of 2015. Now 2016.
If you’re wondering what I do differently, below are a few things off the top of my mind.
Precautions I Take Due to the Insecurity in Bogota
- When I take transportation, I dress down and scatter my money on my person.
- I try to no longer carry a purse when I go out and keep things in my pockets or jacket.
- I get Uber instead of taxis, but if I get a taxi, it’s always by App. (Read my opinion of Uber vs. Taxis)
- And If I absolutely have to get a taxi in the street because the Apps aren’t working, I make sure I like the face of the driver (sorry if this feels like profiling, but I avoid thuggish-looking young guys and go for older drivers)
- And when I do get into a taxi I picked up in the street, I do a quick check to make sure there’s no one crouching in the passenger seat nor in the trunk (sometimes you can see the inside of the trunk from the backseat) and lock the doors.
- At stoplights or in traffic, instead of having the window completely down, I pull it down a bit so no one can reach in.
- Car doors are always locked when you’re driving.
- And keep all purses on the floor and not on the seats, to avoid anyone breaking your window and grabbing your things when you’re at a red light or in traffic (I have a friend that keeps her things in the trunk while she drives).
- I will never walk in the streets past night time unless I’m out dining or with friends.
- The one time I got ripped off by a street shoe shiner, I paid him what he asked for out of fear or having him be aggressive or pull out a knife (If you think I’m exaggerating, check out the tourist that was stabbed with a taxi driver over an argument.)
- When a stranger rings the house, it’s common for the person who calls to ask “con quien hablo”. I never say who I am unless they present themselves first.
- We have shady neighbors who deal with prostitution and who we have heard speak about drug abuse and death threats. Although it makes me sick to my stomach and I feel like insulting them to their face when they blare their music until 5 AM, instead we call the guard downstairs to tell them to turn it down instead of doing it ourselves out of fear of bad blood and so they don’t know which neighbor is complaining.
- When we’re in the car and want to get into an argument with another driver because they cut us off, we hold back from cursing or what not as you never know who you’re dealing with (This was also the last piece of advice given to me when I took my driver’s license class here!)
So yes, Colombia might be beautiful, and Bogota might be a booming capital with great things to visit, but this is a little reminder of reality.