Here I am, on the eleventh floor of a downtown building, looking out on the city from an outsize window extending from wall to wall. It is a sunny day, and I have a panoramic view of Bogotá, packed by homes and offices, and fringed by green-gray mountains. One day I will amble past those homes and offices and walk up to the mountains.
I am in this town for the past three weeks. I speak Spanish and the Latin culture intrigues me. I know a few people, but generally I am on my own. I walk the streets, I haunt the museums, I sip divine coffee in the innumerable bakeries and consume endless croissants. Here it is never too warm or too cold. A light parka is enough to keep me comfortable when I emerge late from a nightclub.
I am amazed at how much our lives change when we move from one country to another. I am the same person whether in Washington or anywhere else, very much a creature of habit. Why should my life change at all, except very peripherally? Yet I find that my routine has changed dramatically. I am eating differently, spending my time differently, even thinking differently. Convenience may have something to do with this, but surely my habits and inclinations would work in the opposite direction and keep me in my place. Instead, I notice in me a seismic shift, in the way I react to people and things.
I get up in the morning and cross the street into a tiny coffee shop and order for breakfast a bowl of changua, a bread-and-egg soup, or arepas, ground maize patties with cheese and avocado, followed by a chocolate drink. These are nowhere near what I eat in Washington. In taste and texture, they are very different, but I eat them contentedly. When the young woman with tousled hair who serves the drink misses a step and spills a drop or two on my jeans, I am unconcerned and gladly tip her more than she expected.
When I walk, I look at every shop and every passerby. Everything seems to have a strange aura of newness. The new faces of men and women strike me with a curious piquancy. Many look preoccupied, some look sad or indifferent, but many look upbeat and happy. They jolt me into remembering that there are quite a few things in my life to make me very cheery. Even when they carelessly jostle me, it fazes me no more than the lightest drizzle, and I walk on.
Here sometimes it drizzles without notice, suddenly while the sun is at its dazzling best, and I am content to walk and let my jacket gather the moisture. I know an accomplished dressmaker and I playfully ordered a bunch of shirts, of a special design that had caught my fancy. I cannot even remember when I last had a shirt made to order, but the person seemed cordial and the price more than reasonable. Now that the shirts have come, I wear them with the enthusiasm only a naïve adolescent should feel. I honestly don’t think I felt a kindred thrill when I bought a new Mercedes Benz.
What is this special feeling I have? Is it just the fun of experiencing the newness of my world, the sharp taste of unaccustomed sights and sounds? Is it the hope of some kind of a new beginning, which is always full of promise? Is it just my body responding to the freshness of a new land, new lodging, new air? I could disregard it as the naive enthusiasm of a casual visitor to a new country. Then it occurred to me how little is the newness of my new environment.
This apartment, charming as it is, is not so very different from all the apartments I have lived in. The food, intriguingly different as it is, is not all that different from the exotic foods that I have variously probed. The leisure, the ease, the company, valuable as they are, are not a category apart from the time and pleasure I have had with others at other times. What is new is the time I have given myself to taste the newness.
The freedom I have suddenly assigned myself to look at things, to listen to people, even to taste what I eat without rushing to judgment and asking myself how they really are. Perhaps unknowingly, but wisely – with the wisdom born of a thousand regrets and disillusionments – I have freed myself to experience the beauty that lies both hidden and open around us.
When I woke up this morning and rolled up the window screen, the sun was just coming up. My disorderly room filled instantly with a gentle light. There seemed a kindly promise foreordained in the quiet unveiling of the day. No great event is planned for the day, no plan for a mountain tour or a great outing with a special person, not even a candlelight dinner to look forward to. Still, I felt a strange pleasure as I stood in the shower, smelled the towel and put on my new shirt. The world has something to offer me, and I have something to receive.
(The writer is a US-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])