I’m on my way to rural Chuquisaca, Bolivia, and should be getting close tomorrow morning – but today I’ve had a stopover in Bogotá, Colombia. It was the cheapest flight I could find, involving two nights in a row of red-eye flights to some high airports. I visited a mountaintop today at 3,152 meters or 10,341 feet; tonight I’ll land at 4,150 m or 13,620 ft. The sudden shift in altitude makes the heart run faster. But the sudden shift in surroundings and culture also challenges my heart and mind; two days ago I was finishing the semester with students at Roxbury Community College, and two days from now I will be meeting with Bolivian fieldwork assistants to resume work in the countryside.
Despite the redeye flights, I jumped at the opportunity to get to know this city I have never seen, and it’s been a beautiful segueway. The moment I got on the plane (Avianca, a Colombian airline) I was enchanted once again with the lilting way Colombian people speak Spanish, softening their consonants and bending their vowels as if chewing gum. It’s a sweet mix of formality, cosmopolitanism, tropical northern South American culture, earnest Roman Catholicism and rowdy party energy. Street vendors call out a la órden – at your service; a stewardess asked me where I was going and added the comment ¡qué penita! – what a gentle shame to be asking me personal information. Taxi drivers are proud natives of the city and could double as tour guides, giving all kinds of history and advice.
Today I thought of Colombian community artist José Alexander Caicedo Castaño, who recommended I travel to the top of Bogotá and look out over the city and the tropical forest. I got there at 7 am and took the funicular to this favorite tourist spot and religious pilgrimage place called Montserrate. As I huffed and puffed up the hill, pulling my rolling backpack, I could see hummingbirds, clouds covering the mountains, and hear one of the Catholic masses held each hour at the mountaintop. When I went inside, it was crowded; the service, readings and prayers were all about Pentecost, a moment in church history when ecstatic believers were heard praising God in all kinds of languages. Teachings about this holiday usually contemplate diversity of all sorts. Later in the day I sat down (out of curiosity and exhaustion) in a different church, and heard a different angle on the same topic; the priest ended up praying that people should all speak the same language: the language of love.
So, unity in diversity – a good place to start this next adventure. It reminds me of the dog chasing its own tail: when you look for variation among languages you inevitably bump up against what they have in common, and vice versa.