Nearly two months into my search for an apartment, a room, or really at that point a closet to call home, I received an unexpected piece of advice. I had replied to Milton’s advertisement on Compartoapto, a housing website, explaining that my boyfriend and I were looking for a place to live and asking for additional information.
In his reply, Milton informed me that he did not rent to unmarried couples and advised my boyfriend and me to go to the local notary and get married. Marriage certificate in hand, he said he would gladly rent us the room.
Although Milton’s was somewhat ex- treme, through the course of my hous- ing search I came to learn that having a long list of criteria for renters was by no means exceptional. Some landlords specified in their ads that they only rented to female students, or male professionals, or individuals belonging to a specific religious group. Others tactfully attempted to keep out the riffraff by describing the ambience as a “family environment.” A surprising number even stated that they did not allow children, as though chil- dren were furniture-chewing puppies.
I wanted to give up after weeks of being told that I didn’t meet the rental requirements, but I was desperate to get out of the room I was renting. It frequently rained on my bed through cracks in the roof and I shared the kitchen with fourteen other people, which meant that there were rarely (if ever) clean dishes. I had to give myself a pep talk before every shower because the water came out in an icy trickle and there was a live soap opera playing downstairs, thanks to the landlord’s brilliant idea to let his ex-wife move into the room he shared with his girlfriend and their children.
One day, after mopping up the rainwater on my floor, I came across an ad for the perfect place: a studio apartment in a beautiful colonial house where the landlord rented to couples. I fell in love with the apartment as soon as I saw it, gave the landlord a deposit, and began imagining myself drinking coffee in the charmingly overgrown garden.
Two days later, my pleasant day dream was cut short when I was robbed at gunpoint by three young men. I was returning home from work on my usual bus and before I realized what was happening one of the men was standing over me, shaking as he pointed a gun at my face. He took my ring, my watch, and some cash while his companions made off with the other passengers’ items. Then they scattered, sprinting into the dark, and left me with a gnawing anxi- ety that haunted me for weeks to come.
After that, I couldn’t get on a bus without feeling my hands shake and my heart pound. Shadows began to jump out at me on the street and the end of an umbrella glinting in the dark on a rainy night looked like a knife. Even the sound of a pigeon flapping lamely on the sidewalk startled me.
I no longer wanted to move to the studio apartment in the center – it was further from work and weaving through dark streets for an extra thirty minutes every night would have been torturous. In fact, I was no longer sure I wanted to stay in Bogotá. My early morning and late evening hours at an English institute compelled me to walk alone in the dark and I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder. Bogotá had become a dark sea of people, buses, and noise and I started to feel like I was drowning.
It wasn’t until I finally found a quiet place to live – with a clean kitchen and a warm shower – that I started to appreciate Bogotá. Armed with a good night’s sleep and a hot breakfast, I began to notice the murals and street performers again. My anxiety slowly subsided and in its place a budding curiosity grew.
I understood then why so many landlords jealously guard their homes. Although the laundry list of requirements I encountered was excessive, in a city of 8 million people your home is the only space you can control.
Bogotá is a place of dizzying contrasts: abject poverty and unimaginable wealth, terracotta-tiled colonial homes and slick skyscrapers, gridlocked streets engulfed in clouds of contamination and quiet cafes receding from tree-lined avenues. One minute you’re being shoved off the TransMilenio and the next a stranger stops on the street to give you directions or a shop owner greets you affectionately and asks about your day. If you don’t have a peaceful place to escape from the city, it can be overwhelming.
Ultimately, Bogotá can’t guarantee you safety or quiet. But what it can guarantee is that every day will be different, surprising, and thought provoking.