A Reason for Applause

Monday June 4, 2012

Bogotá – There was a celebration when we landed. It’s traditional in Colombia to clap when the plane hits the runway. My hands, however, were cradling my head. It is Tuesday May 29th and I’m dizzy.

As we swooped in at 2,600m above sea level, I grew intoxicated with altitude sickness. Whispers of Spanish flickered around me as the flight came to a halt. I sat next to a tall Colombian-American boy who was on vacation with his family. I learned that he was studying medicine in Florida, and I also learned that he was the only boy in a family full of women. All of his siblings, whose chatter filled the rear of the cabin, seemed happy. But not his mother, whose face looked as weathered as the Bogotá I’ve come to know – the one that turns blue skies into rain and storm clouds into sun in what seems like a snap of the fingers.

Things can change fast in Bogotá.

Immigration didn’t stop me. I always feel as though officials have the power to come up with a silly reason to stop you at immigration. You didn’t spell your address correctly. You can’t speak Spanish. You’re too old. You’re too young. You’re too beautiful.

After a brief pause and a hard stare from the sad looking immigration man who hid behind the glass, I passed through, back into Colombia.

I’ve been here before. In 2009 I came to Colombia to study Spanish for 2 months. I remember the fear and anxiety that plagued me when I landed in Medellín at the beginning of the summer. But suddenly there was an old friend from university and a handful of others hanging over a balcony in the Medellín airport. They were shouting and waving, and my welcome, indeed my entire time in that lovely city, was warm.

Again, now in Bogotá’s El Dorado airport, even though the air is chilly, my welcome is warm.

Right as I walked away from the currency exchange window, I heard my name being called loudly. Cristian and Nataly, two members of the AIESEC Trainee Integration team, met me with huge hugs. They took photographs. They gave me a small traditional Colombian pouch with a hand-made Colombian poncho inside. A small bottle of aguardiente, the national white rum touted as a point of Colombian pride, came tumbled of the pouch as well. Then they bought me a hamburger.

I was happy. I felt comfortable. I felt safe.

The first thing you learn when you get to Bogotá is how dangerous it is, and how you have to tener cuidado or be careful. At first, I didn’t understand exactly what this meant. Did it mean that I was going to get killed? Kidnapped? Robbed? Tripped? Does it mean that some parts of the city are more dangerous than others?

“Everywhere in Bogotá is dangerous,” Yudbeny, the woman who runs my apartment, told me later. “After 8pm in the evening, if you are on the street alone, and the street is empty, then tener cuidado.”

It sounds like I have no choice when it comes to danger.

But the truth is: I do.

After hopping into a small car with Cristian, the road starts moving underneath me. Small, wobbly buses called collectivos zip and dart around us. It is dark. The road is dented with potholes and cracks. The car shakes violently. Cristian is cool.

As we zoom toward the house where I will stay for one week until I get settled, something in Colombia is happening.

What coincides with (almost to the day) of my arrival is the release of Roméo Langlois, a French journalist, by the FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The FARC, a left-wing guerrilla group that formed in 1964 in opposition to Colombia’s tattered political climate, took Langlois captive during a firefight with the Colombian military in the mountains of Caqueta (a department in the south of the country) on April 28th.

When I learn of Langlois, my first impression is of a terrified hostage who is relieved to be set free.

But Langlois is not your average hostage.

During his 30 days in captivity, Langlois rigorously interviewed and documented the life of the guerrilla soldiers whose political motives and weaponry could decide life or death for the young Frenchman on a whim. He emerged from captivity claiming that he was treated well, and that the FARC desperately want to talk peace. Langlois came out of captivity singing the story of one of Colombia’s most marginalized and feared guerrilla groups – and how the international community needs to put pressure on Colombia for a peace process.

The next morning, as I read up on the news about Langlois’ mission, captivity and release, I also set out on my own mission: to learn the notorious Transmilenio, Bogotá’s public transit system, and try not to get lost.

Langlois’ story reminds me that I – like everyone – have a mission too, but more importantly, I have a choice.

I can weigh the risks in favor of safety and security. That is the route most people around me take in Bogotá. Colombia is not all war and conflict, but it does exist. I can, if I choose to, weigh the risks like Langlois did. I can make it my mission to get to the heart of a dangerous, messy, and deeply complex political story, and try not die.

I won’t though.

Being Roméo Langlois – a reporter – is something that’s been on my mind for awhile. Colombia, a country where reportage is important but risky, is no doubt an exciting place for a youngster to dig in and cut his teeth.

Then again, I think I’ll be patient.