I never felt like I fit in on the coast. My very DNA lacked the rhythm flowing through everyone´s blood, be it champeta, vallenato or the Holy Spirit. When I gazed into the mirror held up by my community I saw and became a pale, quiet Canadian, a sweaty, imination version of something I was not even sure how to be. In the land of no-privacy, I tried to spend time alone. In the land of loud, (speakers bigger than fridges! motorcycles everywhere! cock fights on the corner!), I felt shy and boring. I viewed myself as underwhelming when everything around me was overwhelming.
Costeñita is a beer that comes in a small green glass bottle and is best very cold. I drank it at the gas station outside of Mampujan, after an exhausting day of meetings, with a man from the National Reparations Fund in Bogotá whose name I no longer remember. What I do remember is the rain coming down in great tropical sheets, the power going out, and riding back, after an emergency phone call, on Alexander´s motorcycle, terrified, draped in black plastic to stay dry and unable to see anything. I also remember that stark feeling of relief, of sharing an experience, like Costeñita in the rain after reparations, with someone who was more confused about life in this coastal context than I was.
In Bogotá, people do not refer to me as Canadian. I am instead affectionately known as their Costeña. My reputation here is loud, from my bright green pants to my sweeping hand gestures. When I try to explain my calm and quiet personality, I am met with incredulity and disbelief. I am sarcastically referred to as the colleague with the “low profile.” In the mirror of a formal city and a workaholic office, where no one is ever tu, but rather usted or su merced, I am high energy, dynamic and constantly seek distraction.
I find it easy to pick out the costeñas in the crowds waiting for the bus or walking in the city centre. They have braided hair and pair brightly coloured spandex with white sneakers. They are the ones who are for once silent and unsure because a city full of politeness, business suits, and high heeled boots holds them in its gaze. Friends from the coast tell me to be careful.“There is nothing more dangerous than a costeño outside of their natural habitat,” they caution. If this is true, what does it make me? I can feel myself becoming sharp, like the edge of a knife ready to take on the world.
Foreign women have two reputations here: easy or missionary, sex or salvation. I prefer to walk the line between extremes, even though in the circles of my work the tendency leans towards saviour. Preconceived notions of what this means here involve badly dressed, seldom showered, timid truth telling women carrying large Bibles or nuns, of which I am neither. After life on the coast, my neighbourhood in Bogotá could be part of any large Canadian city; the longer I am here, the more I feel at home and act like it, and thus begin to forget that in the eyes of everyone else, I do not belong. Rather, my behaviour must be categorized and I come out Costeña.
I have not felt so much like myself in a long time nor been so accused of being different from who I should be. Am I Canadian or am I Costeña? I am afraid of going home, that my reflection in the Canadian mirror will cause me to distort myself. In my most honest moments, I recognize that I want to be unique, that the act of living under a different gaze makes me the centre of attention and allows me to reinvent myself, for better or for worse. No matter who I am, I am a mystery to be figured out and my every action has a cultural excuse. In Canada, I am just another Canadian, no matter how different I feel.
In Bogotá, I drink Club Colombia Roja, the beer in the red can, with a co-worker at our spot on the Parkway. We compare experiences of coming back to the city and the nostalgia we hold for the life and people left behind, both the guilt and the relief. I walk home with my umbrella through the drizzle and feel no fear at all.