If you’re thinking correctly, you learn more than you teach. I’d like to think that’s what I did at the university Externado, in Bogota, Colombia, this past week. I taught a three-day, 12-hour seminar on crisis management and communication to 90 graduate students, including l0 MBAs.
I did some un-learning, too, including un-learning the dire, hysterically negative images of Bogota — the product of a US State Department Travel Warning and many other well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning worry warts. The Bogota I saw — central and north sections of the city — is a thriving, madcap, digitized metropolis not unlike my native New York City. The streets are clogged with taxis, buses and cars no further from each other’s bumpers than Formula 1 race cars and seemingly not much slower.
Bogota sits on a high plain, 8,600 feet above sea level, and at the foot of moutaints an additional couple of thousand feet above the city. Having lived in Los Angeles, with plenty of side trips to San Francisco, I looked up and around and felt, somehow, that I was familiar with the setting, the sight lines, the hills, the twisty road above the center of the city and through the mountains — not unlike speeding along Mulholland Drive from the Hollywood Hills to the Pacific.
This is geographic sense-making — how we reduce the unfamiliarity of a place by running it through our geographic DNA database.
For someone who’s never been south of Key West and whose Spanish does not extend much beyond Lo siento!, teaching a graduate seminar in the capitol city of Colombia promised nothing if not novelty. And while it was new enough, the fabulous anxieties surrounding that newness began to subside within a day or two, and those feelings began to be replaced by a mixture of exhilaration and nerves. I remember a passage in a notebook of Camus when he describes being suddenly so overwhelmed with feelings of strangeness that he bolts from a restaurant, out the door and back to his room. Was he in Prague? Or a village in Austria? I don’t remember. What I do remember was his sense of being almost nauseated — overcome, flooded by sensation. This is both the curse and the paradoxical joy of being a stranger in a strange land (with apologies to sci fi master Robert Heinlein, who died recently, after having written the famous novel among scores of others).
Com theorist and public relations scholar Tim Coombs created a complex theory for the analysis and management of organizational crises. One key factor to consider in the diagnosis of an organizational crisis, he says, is what he calls “crisis history”. When I retailed that idea to the graduate students, they reminded me of Bogota’s intensely operatic crisis history — indeed, the nation’s. And close to home some of it was. In l985, rebel forces stormed the Palace of Justice — the Supreme Court — a five-minute ride from the university, in Bolivar Plaza, the capitol seat. When government forces attempted to re-take the building, there were a dozen or more casualties, including a half dozen or so who were graduates of Externado’s prestigious law school.
There it was again — the branding of Bogota as a violent place. But I kept reminding myself and telling my gracious hosts that as a boy growing up in New York City, I was very aware of the potential for violence, although it wasn’t until I was a grownup living in Boston that I was actually a victim of violence — a mugging in a subway tunnel that cost me 12 stitches and a tooth. In New York City, you didn’t wander into Central Park after dark, unless you were going with a friend to see a Joe Papp performance of Shakespeare in the Park. You didn’t hang out on 84th street between Columbus and Amsterday — that is, before that whole neighborhood got trendy in the 80s. You didn’t go to Bed Stuy or the South Bronx (Sister Teresa remarked that the South Bronx was more tragic even than the slums of Calcutta) or the Bowery. You didn’t even go to Times Square when you were a kid — in the 50s — which was long before Times Square was swallowed up by the corporate architecture of Viacom. All those places ranged from raffish to dangerous, not to mention the subway at night.
I grew up an city kid, with a city kid’s street smarts. I made it a point not to bike on Riverside Drive after dark or even alone on certain kinds of days in the afternoon when there was this sense of something wrong that you couldn’t help but feel.
What of the horrendously poor, broken, violent face of Bogota South, the face I didn’t see? No more did I see the face of the burnt out South Bronx or the mean streets of Bed Stuy. These nightmarish hopeless districts are quite alive in my imagination, and have served to dominate the imagination and paralyze the wills of innumerable actual and mental travelers. It is not to deny their existence that I dare not venture into those despairing places. Rather, it is to refuse to choose to go there, to catastrophize, to stoke and colorize my tabloid fanatasies — and for what? To acquire frightful images for the memory and narration?
No reason to go there. Rather, as I ventured out of my charming hotel into the calles and carreras of Bogota, walking briskly toward one of the city’s centers, another feeling took me by pleasant surprise — I was seeing with smiling avid accepting enthralled heart of Walt Whitman on of his his perambulations through the city he called Manhatta, in the poem by that name:
“Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender/strong light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies”.
That’s it. Whitman would have embraced Bogota, and to the fortunate extent that I carry Whitmanin me, I, too, embraced you, Bogota!