A rebirth of an administrative nature

Stepping out into the crisp cold morning of my parents’ house in Cota, the town where I was raised (just outside Colombia’s capital Bogota); reminds me of an idyllic childhood and of the early days of a life that I’m still trying to figure out.

I think I’ve gone so far down memory lane, the last few days have been like ‘being born’ again. It hasn’t all been in my head though, for all intents and purposes, I haven’t really existed in this country for the past 23 years, except for my mother perhaps, and even she treats me as if I was still 17!

Since we landed in Bogota, my partner and I have been running around the city trying to set up the “basics” most adults have these days. It’s been frustrating at times but mostly entertaining.

The first thing we did was buy a SIM card so we could have a local phone number. It was a relatively painless process as all they needed was proof of ID and off we went. For me the challenge has been letting go of my South African digits as I’m still in denial the number I memorised and spat out every time I was asked for contact information isn’t longer the way to reach me. It’s as though those digits had been tattooed on my forehead and the new bar code isn’t sticking so well. In fact when people ask me here what my number is I have to sheepishly look it up and try to explain why such a simple answer is not yet a natural one.

Next was making my existence evident to a financial institution. We went to the local bank to try and set up an account. The first question was about my work and how much I earned to which I had to explain I was starting again after many years out of the country. I began my self-indulging and perhaps delusional description of a romantic return to the ‘mother land’ after decades and of how I was trying to connect with my birth place… when the clerk abruptly stopped and said, “you need proof of income to open a checking account”.

She then said: “if you are an independent worker, I need to see your business registration with DIAN” (the revenue service or equivalent of SARS); fair enough I thought except I have nothing to register, at this point I still have no idea how we will make a living. The stress building up inside must have been visible as she quickly suggested I should open a savings account “as a house-wife”. I’ve never been happy to fit into archaic gender roles; at that moment I was ecstatic.

She took my ID and then proceeded to recite the different options and fees on offer for this particular account. As she began the fast-paced, automated recital of names, times and figures we could hardly keep up with, I had to stop her and ask her to kindly slow down because Spanish was my partner’s second language and frankly I wasn’t understanding a word she was saying. She smiled, slowed down for the first 30 seconds and picked up the speed she had started with. We scribbled furiously and asked seemingly naive questions; the types someone who has never had a bank account raises. But with that, I successfully became another cog in the local bank system.

Finding health insurance has been a real worry and it’s taking the longest of all tasks, fundamentally because until yesterday, I truly struggled to understand how the system works. I am still unsure I get it and although in South Africa I experienced an effectively unaffordable and exclusive private health care system. Over the years I understood it and found a way to work ‘with it’ or better yet, ‘despite of it’.

Here the concept is that everyone has access to medical attention and pays according to their salary. There are multiple companies called Health Promoting Entities (EPS for its name in Spanish) that broker access to basic services and certain health providers. This level of coverage is mandated by law but for those with enough resources, another set of companies offer what it’s called ‘pre-paid health care’ which, for an additional monthly fee, buys people quicker access to specialists and the hospitals of ‘a better class’. In between there are “insurance” companies which offer partial access to some of the hospitals and some of the specialists. In both cases, the more you pay, the more access you get.

In addition to having to explain why I haven’t been affiliated to an EPS in the past 23 years, I have felt completely useless in discussing the different options with sales people, but also with friends and family members. All I remember vividly about the EPS system is that two years ago, my father received appalling care as his cancer was only discovered until it was way too late and this was largely because doctors had no incentive to refer him to a specialist. Not to go into detail for the episode is too sad but the bottom line is that health care as in any other capitalist society is a commodity that only the rich can really count on. The EPS system seemingly tries, at least in principle, to be more equitable, but the reality will be something we will have to face as the Colombia journey continues.

As we completed our tasks for the day yesterday, we got into Transmilenio first, and then onto a bus that would take us from the edge of the city to my mother’s home in Cota where we are staying for a few more days. To my pleasant surprise, the buses were not crowded and quick, the environment was such that I had a moment to reflect and be reminded of what this place means because I see myself reflected in those around me. As we got on the second bus, I witnessed the scene of a granny with a small child explaining all the things he was pointing out the window. ‘Why are those cows there grandma’? was one of the questions I heard and as she explained in allegory, I was reminded again that I was once that little kid and that this is the place where I learnt all the basics of being a human. The memories, I will forever cherish and the opportunity to return is something I am only starting to grasp and appreciate now. Being born again might not be such a bad thing after all.

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Marcela Guerrero Casas

Marcela Guerrero Casas

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I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.