What does it feel like when an educator from Canada encounters the reality of Latin America, and Bogota, for the first time?


[background: Manu Cornet, Un peu plus tard. Licensed under Creative Commons. ]

I am home again, as though I had never left. Bogota. The sights and sounds surround me still. The people. The colours. The smells.

I am walking along Seventh on a Sunday morning. The shouts of children and people echo downtown and a radio broadcast begins to fill the air. I stretch towards the sound. Music. Laughter.

And... motorcycles. And noise. Who would have expected this? People running by. Thousand and thousands of people. The Bogota half-marathon is today. And the crowds line the streets, the streets that have been closed to cars, and admit only bicycles, pedestrians, and runners. Thousands of runners. And I stand and watch.

[background: crowd noises, radio playing Shakira's Hips Don't Lie, marathon announcer speaking Spanish. Sounds recorded by Stephen Downes.]

Is this the Bogota I was expecting to see, this Bogota of music and laughter, of half-marathons on a Sunday morning, of gleaming downtown towers? No. This is not the Bogota I was expecting to see.

By the time Sunday rolled around I had been in Bogota for five days. The first day, afraid to leave the hotel. The next three days, at a conference at the School of Engineering outside the city. Then yesterday, Saturday, being shown around by Diego. And then finally, today, Sunday, exploring, discovering the city on my own.

[background: Kolokon, Ella. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

Don't go out at night, they said, Bogota is not safe. So of course I arrived at 10:30 at night, driving through the city streets in a taxi, all alone, watching the motorcycle, afraid of the motorcycle. There could be gangs, or worse, on the motorcycle.

When I arrived at my hotel the streets were absolutely deserted except for myself and the cab driver. I had to trust the cab driver. There was an armed guard with a submachine gun about fifteen feet away. He watched us. As the money came out, I looked around, afraid.

Where was I? What had I done? I was in Colombia. I was at a conference. This is what I was supposed to see. Colombia! Colombia! Latin America!

[background: inaudible text of me giving a speech]

[background, from another speech ('On Being Radical', ): "It's radical! How could this ever work? And I'm sitting there on that airplane wondering why they are calling it radical. And that's how I come to be here, giving this talk. Is it radical to have many points of view to describe a resource or a person or an idea, instead of just one, the publisher's, or his agent's? Is it radical to have, at your hands, the means of creating, easily, without having to get a degree in computer science?

[background: Manu Cornet, Un peu plus tard. Licensed under Creative Commons. ]

Who was I kidding? I didn't really know.

[background: Micko, Mujures de belleza despersonalizada. Licensed under Creative Commons. ]

Bogota has its bright lightgs, its tall towers, its Zona Rosa, and its Hard Rock Cafe. But you cannot get away from the history here. The statues, the arches, the churches, the cathedrals.

Sure. I could be a tourist. I could look at the churches and the statues and the public buildings and the public squares, see Colombia as a tourist sees Colombia. But I saw something more. I saw the people.

[background: Santo santo santo. Recorded by Stephen Downes.]

The Salt Cathedral was built at the bottom of a mine under a hill just north of Bogota. The government just spent six million dollars to refurbish it. It is gigantic. The cross stands more than 60 feet high. But it wasn't a government program or private enterprise that built the Cathedral. It was the miners themselves.

As we took the cable car down from Monserrate, Diego and I stood in silence, reflecting on what we had seen. The sounds of the traffic drifted up to us, horns honking, buses roaring. It wasn't the city of fear I had experienced when I first arrived, but it wasn't exactly safe either and we both knew it.

Diego said to me, he said, "Part of the problem is that everybody tries to get rich quick. They go for that one big score." And in a city like Bogota, that one big score is the rich person who comes down from the north.

I said to him, I was looking at the soldiers as I came in, and the thing that struck me about them is that they're so young, they are children. And I wondered what their lives would be like in 30 years if they were still standing guarding the streets. And I was wondering, what makes the cab driver want to be a cab driver for 30 years.

There's no future, there's no hope, when you define yourself, when everything you are is the way you make money. And everything you are is something very limited. Something without hope. Something without a future. Something with nothing to strive for.

[background: Joe Golan, Quiet Nights Thinking. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

Nobody pays you to run a half-marathon. What I saw on Sunday was not about the money. It was about the people, the people of Bogota.

[background: Beto Stocker, Utopia en re. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

What makes work more that just merely earning a living? It's when the work, or something associated with the work, becomes worth doing in and of itself.

How then to transform a nation? Well it has been said that the way to create a revolution is not to change the government, but to change the people.

These round figures are by Fernando Botero, a Colombian artist, from the collection donated by him to the city of Bogota. And as Diego and I wandered around the museum, we looked not only at the Boteros but at the Klimts, the Monets, the Dalis...

There was a bunch of kids clustered around one of the paintings and I commented, "They're six inches from a Monet, and they're interested in the frame."

But I asked myself too, what made any of these painters create their art? Was it to make a dollar? Was it to become famous? Or was it because they had to paint? Because the art meant more to them than anything else?

And I realized, the more I saw of Colombia, the more I saw of this happening on an everyday basis. The way I saw the people running the marathon. The way I saw the writing on the walls, the grafitti, the people creating in the streets.

And I saw, too, the basis for the revolution in education, not in wires and computers and digital content, but in the examples, the models that we can provide. Because fundamentally if you want to change a people, you have to ask, how do people learn? And when you ask, how do people learn, it is by patterning themselves, modelling themselves, after the examples that they see.

[background: classical music, recorded by Stephen Downes]

On Sunday, when I went to the market, there was a boy, maybe six or seven years old, playing the piano at the entrance, with his father encouraging him. Is this learning?

[background: street sounds, recorded by Stephen Downes]

Diego and I wandered through Candelaria district of Bogota, looking at the government buildings, wandering between the cafes. We talked about art and music and creativity. At one point we say a man repairing a car showing his son what he was doing as he went along. "On Demand learning," I commented.

[background: drums and pipes, recorded by Stephen Downes]

My lesson in learning would come Sunday, after the market and after the marathon, when I decided to take a walk in the park. I was a bit nervous, but I saw women and children playing in the park, and I figured if it was safe for them it was safe for me. As it turned out, it was more than safe.

On one side there was a group of percussionists, just practising. Taking advantage of the free music nearby, several dancers were exercising. And as I watched, this group formed and reformed, becoming something quite more in the process.

I thought about the lesson the children were learning, that you make your own knowledge, that you make your own knowing, that you make your own music, that you make your own dance.

It all comes back to the children. What they see. What examples they follow. What they learn to value. What they see in life.

Diego and I talked about this as we wandered through the Candelaria. That learning isn't saying the right thing or presenting the right content. It's doing the right thing and living the right way. And that's the learning that I was seeing in the park in Bogota that day.

[background: classical music, recorded by Stephen Downes]

And it wasn't just the one group of dancers and the one group of drummers. As I wandered through that park, and then up the road through another park, I saw more. Much more.

At one point I saw a group of people standing in a circle. The people around the circle would take turns entering the circle and telling a story or a joke. Another group, Capoeira Nago, practiced a type of martial art, looks like it came from Brazil. A second park, a massive display of group dancing, in between the orange coloured trellises.

[background: Capoeira Nago, recorded by Stephen Downes]

[background: Drums, recorded by Stephen Downes]

When Diego and I parted Saturday night, I said that Sunday would be my graduation, to see whether I had learned to live in Bogota as a Colombian. It felt safe, I said to him. He said to me, "Bogota hasn't changed. You've changed."

The ride back to the airport on Monday was during the daylight, safe as could be.

It didn't matter a bit.

[background: Kolokon, Ella. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

[background: classical music, recorded by Stephen Downes]

[background: Beethoven, Ode to Joy, public domain]


  1. "Bogota hasn't changed. You've changed."

    Beautiful. True, simple, and beautiful.


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