Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What makes a city? Or, The sounds of Bogotá

It turns out that a friend I had been hoping to see upon my return to Colombia moved to Houston a few months ago, so I won't get to see him. When I asked, via email, how he was liking life in the USofA, he admitted that he's finding Houston hard to adapt to. Among the most difficult things, he said, is the fact that he feels like people look at him like he's crazy if he attempts to walk somewhere, instead of racing from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned office to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned house, ad infinitum

As a Colombian, he wrote, “The concept of city that I have is very different than this. I believe that a city is a network of genetic, cultural, phenotypic, and environmental information of a specific area that is totally dynamic and symbiotic, and inhabited by our species.”

His email arrived just after I had finished writing in my journal about the noises of Bogotá. That morning, I had been awakened by some combination of the hot morning sun rendering my curtains useless, taxis roaring down the street outside my single-pane window, the local bar blaring merengue as workers cleaned up from the previous night's almost-New-Year's-Eve revelry, and the head cold that had come to settle in my nose. I turned over and tried to fall back asleep, but to no avail.

Despite my desire for a few more winks, the chaos that awoke me exemplified one of the things that I have come to identify with Latin American cities--or at least Bogotá, since it's the one I know the best: the cacauphony of sounds continously bouncing off the dirty concrete walls and cracked sidewalks.

On any morning spent sitting in my apartment or walking to the corner store (of which there really is one on every corner, if not more than one), I am likely to here many, if not all, of the following sounds:

  • A mandarin orange seller blaring an annoucement from his car stereo about the sweetness and excellent price of the fruit that is nearly spilling out of his open trunk as he creeps the vehicle down the street.
  • The choking and coughing of buses' deisel engines as they pause to pick up or drop off passengers every 1/2 block, irregardless of bus stops that may or may not exist.
  • The irregular but incessant honking of car horns as unruly drivers swerve and slam brakes to avoid accidents.
  • The rythmic drumming of street performers racing to make a few pesos before the traffic light changes and their audience drives away.
  • The local bar inviting the entire neighborhood to dance by blasting salsa music that can be heard three blocks away.The cries of the neighbor baby penetrating the thin apartment walls.
  • The enunciated clip-clop of horse hooves on cement as a horse cart driver collects carboard from sidewalk trash, maneuvering through traffic en route to the recycling plant. 
  • The gossipy chatter of university students clustered around a "perros con todo" stand (hot dogs with literally everthing: mayo, ketcup, tomato, potato chips, bacon, and probably more) after a long day of classes.
It's not that the U.S. doesn't have vibrant cities, and of course Houston is a very particular example of a U.S. city. But I think my friend is right: there is a vibrancy and connectivity of life in Colombia cities that doesn't exist in the same way in the U.S. Though it's sometimes overwhelming, it's also very wonderful.

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