I’ve been in Bogotá for a few days now. I haven’t even really gotten started with work here, yet it’s already become one of the biggest adventures (challenges?) I’ve ever done. Here’s what’s happened so far– what I’ve done from a journaling perspective, as well as what I’ve noticed from an observational perspective (which, I mindfully caveat, is an American one).
I arrived in Bogotá Wednesday evening. Upon arriving at El Dorado International, there was an immediate sense of being in an unfamiliar environment (in the months leading to my arrival, we were given Fulbright orientation books and had security briefings that all left me very anxious). I had forgotten to fill out my Check-Mig form prior to departure, so was left having to do it on my phone while waiting in the passport control line. Fortunately, my Verizon phone had picked up the Claro network on roaming. However at times, Google Translate in Chrome would actually serve as a technological impediment to task completion, but I figured it out right in time. Passport control wasn’t much of an issue, though I was glad I printed out a paper copy of my electronic visa to provide the officer.
I made it to baggage claim and my bags were already circling the belt, which was a relief. And in the hall, there were two ATMs, so I decided to use the Scotiabank Colpatria ATM to take out some Colombian pesos (COP, from here out).1 I wasn’t quite sure how much to take out and the ATM menu screens were a bit (lot) confusing amid the mental chaos of arrival in another country with a language I don’t speak nearly well enough. I wanted to take out some more cash in a second transaction, but for some reason, my card wouldn’t work. So I figured (hoped) I had enough for a cab ride and would get more at another point.
Originally, I intended to take an Uber from the airport to my flat. However, in the day or two leading up to my arrival, some colleagues here informed me that Uber use is a bit of a legal gray area and that police would often pull over Uber drivers making airport pickups (but not drop-offs (?)). So I had an about-face and took their advice to use a cab. I was told to find the authorized taxi queue outside, take one of the official cabs from there, and it would be about 30.000 COP. But as I was trying to verify if the cabs were “official,” a porter took my bag and put it in the trunk of the cab, sending me into the vehicle at the same time. Amid my mental confusion and exhaustion, I couldn’t figure out why the porter kept sticking his hand in my face (since I initially thought he was actually the cab driver). I realized he was looking for a tip, but I hadn’t any change (because of the limited cash I was able to pull from the ATM), which didn’t seem to please him at all.
And with that slight of gratuity (and at night, after a full day of travel), I was a bit terrified that I might have then been put in the wrong cab. In earlier Fulbright briefings, we’d been told about paseo millonario (millionaire’s ride), in which gangs team up with cab drivers to take the riders hostage and bring them to an ATM to empty their account out. This is one reason we’re advised never to hail a cab from the street. The entire cab ride to my apartment, I could only think, “what if I’m on one of those rides and I’m never going to get to my apartment and all my money is going to be gone? I’m not even sure if I gave the right address in Spanish to the driver.” Fortunately, my immediate fears were overblown, the cab ride dropped me off at my apartment without actual issue and I was able to check into my Airbnb. The cab ride? 65.000 COP.
I unpacked my packing cubes, made a list of things I’d need to get for the apartment for the next four months, and then went to bed.
Thursday, I did a few things in the morning, before heading out to walk around my new neighborhood. Again, there was a bit of anxiety over security, but it was daylight, so I wanted to start getting a sense of where I was living. The university and much of the city remained closed for winter holiday (through the Epiphany holiday today), so I just started walking. Up to Parque de la Independencia Bicentenario…
… Over to the business school building on campus…
… And around the block to Colo Coffee Roasters, a Colombian-based specialty coffee roaster (who does ship to the US). It was interesting to be able to check out a cafe that had the aesthetic of a third wave coffee shop found in the Global North (or as I prefer to call it, net consumption-dominant countries, or NCD countries),2 yet sourced and roasted its coffee domestically. This type of value chain interests me, as it keeps revenue local in the Global South (or as I prefer to call it, net production-dominant countries, or NPD countries). Not only did I get a V60 for 10.000 COP, but I also made a barista friend to sort of practice broken Spanish with. And, I brought a bag of whole bean home for apartment brewing.
Following this, I met up with Oscar Naranjo, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Uniandes. Oscar was nice enough to walk me around some of the points of interest in the Zona Centro and Candelaria neighborhoods. We went down Carerra 7 all the way to the Plaza de Bolívar and Plaza de Armas, over around near Parque de Santander, up toward the campus, and then back near my place before heading back to a Tigo on Cr. 7 so I could get a Colombian burner phone and SIM card (so no, many of my pictures will not be of sublime Pixel 7 Pro quality).3 It was helpful to get a local’s perspective on that part of the city, but even moreso, to have him interact with the sales rep at Tigo to help get me a phone. I’ve taken Duolingo for more than a year and I attained somewhere around B2-level French as an undergrad, so I had some “survival Spanish” I could swing, but I’m not quite ready for fast-paced retail/restaurant interactions.
After all the walking, I went back to the apartment, ordered some pizza, and then made some video calls home for the evening.
Friday morning, I finally got to go grocery/toiletry shopping to stock a few things in the apartment. I walked a few blocks to Carulla Bacata, where I was immediately overwhelmed by its size. No, it wasn’t bigger than my usual Wegmans. Rather, the entire store could practically fit into just the produce section of my Wegmans. That, combined with not understanding Spanish well (see above) meant two things:
- I spent more than an hour-and-a-half browsing the store trying to figure out what products were there and not there, and where they were (could not find raisins, did not know spaghetti sauce was at the very front of the store).
- I walked away with two giant bags of goods, yet failed to get half of the items on my list (no chicken breast, trail mix, limited frozen foods).
I’ve been to other supermarkets in other countries and I always find it interesting to see how the market for one of our basic human needs (food) is approached. Outside the US, for example, there are a lot more smaller, specialized markets and people go shopping more frequently but buy less. However, these types of markets also rely more on interpersonal interaction. Again, this is challenging when you can’t really speak the language. These are the types of things we tend not to think about in our day-to-day lives in the US, yet are major challenges for immigrants adjusting to their own new lives.
After dropping off my groceries, I walked up to Plaza de Mercado la Perseverancia, which was featured in the Bogotá episode of Netflix’s Street Food: Latin America. I hadn’t eaten yet, so I went to La Caseta del Tinto and got a couple of Doña Berta Segura’s infamous arepas and a ‘tinto‘ (which is like a shot of coffee with a bit of panela– a bit of a pick-me-up, if you will). Tinto is a uniquely traditional Colombian way to drink coffee and alludes to the redishness of brewed coffee resembling vino tinto (red wine). It was once said that working class who couldn’t afford wine would drink coffee instead.
I walked around a bit more and then returned to the apartment to do some work for a manuscript revision before finishing my leftover pizza and making some evening video calls home. I also put in a pharmacy order through Rappi, an app service that functions like a mashup of Doordash, Postmates, and Shipt. Pharmacies here have the clerk at the front of the store and all the products at a counter/in the back. I’m not ready to speak Spanish with a druggist to get Pepto-Bismol (read: BisBacter down here), so I figured it would be easier to order a few items online and have the courier deliver it.
On Saturday, I got a late start before walking in a different direction in the neighborhood, back down to Parque de los Periodistas to try some Colombian poutine (I’ve now had poutine on three continents), before heading back to Colo for some coffee, grabbing a few more things at the Ara grocery store, and then heading back home.
Yesterday, I did some more walking in yet another direction, poking through some small stores off of Cr. 7, going to Colo to do a bit of work, and then coming back home. Today is the Epiphany holiday here and, since I don’t know that things will be open, I’ll be doing some more writing work, more ethics protocol work, and probably more familiarizing myself with the area before hopefully getting to join in on campus tomorrow. I’m hopeful to be able to start getting into some sort of campus-oriented routine soon so that I can feel more productive through more interpersonal interaction with colleagues and then translate that to things like a better sleep and meal schedule.
I’ve already dictated a research memo of sorts, just from being here. A couple of brief observations from the memo:
- A V60 cup of specialty coffee at origin costs 9.900 pesos ($2.53). You would be lucky to find a specialty shop in the US that does a V60 for 2.53. In fact, you’d be lucky to find a specialty coffee that offers a house batch brew for that price. Contrast that with a tinto for 1.500 COP ($0.38). I completely understand that the purchasing power parity of $2.53 and $0.38 is significantly different in the US vs. here. However, it begs questions about what it means for producers if purchasing power is higher in NCD countries but retail prices are not (and I mean prices across the board, not just for specialty beans and not just for cafes).
- Oscar was discussing with me how Colombians often get the terrible quality coffee that typically remain for domestic consumption after export. It is rarer for Colombians to have access to specialty grade coffee; the growth of the specialty consumer market here is far behind the curve in NCD countries. Certainly, a recent article in El Spectador (ES) corroborates as much. This makes it more difficult for scholars, practictioners, and policymakers in NCD countries to approach equity in post-colonial market relationships that operate outside traditional power dynamics, as they’re often insufficiently considering the concerns of domestic markets in NPD countries. Whether in Colombia, Ethiopia, or Indonesia, this dynamic leads to reinforcing policies that leave producers as price takers, rather than price makers. Direct trade has some potential to give producers more price setting ability, yet it often advantages more well-capitalized producers and, even at that, has its own caveats.
It is still early days for me here and I have yet to really hit the ground on any of this. However, I’ve already started to draw connections between these observations for more questions. Certainly, there will be more to come ahead.
- The exchange rate is approximately 4.000 COP to 1 USD, so doing conversions to USD is about 1/4(000) of the COP amount. ↩︎
- My preference is to use a term such as “net consumption/production-dominant (NCD/NPD) countries” because it centers the product itself. An extensive critique by Khan et al. (2022) in BMJ Global Health assesses various terms used to classify countries. Some of these classifications are solely economically driven (eg, “third/first world,” “lower/higher-income countries,” “developing/developed countries), while others relate closely to colonial history (eg, “Global North/South,” “West/East,” “Old/New World”).
Coffee, though originally taken from Ethiopia through Yemen and brought elsewhere around the world through colonialism, is now grown in more than 50 countries. It is grown in India, Mexico, Burundi, China, and yes, even the United States (not just Hawai’i, but also Puerto Rico, Southern California, and attempts have even been made in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas). Is China still an emerging market? Is the US part of the Global South? No. None of these classifications seem to make sense.
Rather, it would seem appropriate to classify China and the US as net consumption-dominant countries, as the overall consumption of coffee in those countries is net greater than the coffee that is produced in those countries. Likewise, there are consumer markets in Colombia or Ethiopia, but it would seem more appropriate to classify them as net production-dominant countries as the overall production of coffee in those countries is net greater than the coffee that is consumed in those countries.
Further, centering the NCD/NPC classification around the product itself lends itself to better describing power dynamics in modern marketplace terms (production/consumption), rather than in purely economic or historical terms (though economic and historical assumptions are certainly embedded, as they continue to shape the producer/consumer power dynamics of the marketplace).
I recognize this footnote could have been a blog entry of its own… Maybe it will, yet. ↩︎
- Verizon’s TravelPass is $10/day and essentially allows you to access your domestic plan (voice/SMS/data) abroad. However, since I will be here for some time, $10/day will add up really quickly. It made more sense to get a burner phone with a local prepaid SIM. I then added WhatsApp on that phone and used the recently developed “Companion Mode” to link my device. The only caveat is that I have to relink it to my active Verizon device every two weeks, which means I have to take my Verizon phone off airplane mode every couple of weeks. But that is still far less costly. ↩︎