Caught between a city and a soft place

I love how, just before sunrise, the mist rises over the bucolic landscape of Guasca, the town that has, almost overnight, become ‘home’. The crisp and fresh air fills the lungs, the early rays of sun warms the heart, while the birds’ early chirping provide the best soundtrack to what nature in its purest form has to offer. This idyllic place is the most suitable backdrop for my current state of mind, but I didn’t always appreciate rural living.

As a child, I grew up in a small town just outside Bogotá, but went to high school and did most other things in the city. This duality carried an internal conflict that played out for years. I would try to hide the fact that my family lived in the countryside, and would invariably fail. The simplest thing such as giving an address was just not possible, for instance. We lived in a place where streets were not numbered and therefore mail would only arrive at a centralised place near the town square. All I could provide was the name of the house and the name of the ‘vereda’ or rural ward, which of course would immediately give it away. And so I would hear things like ‘wow, that’s far!’ or ‘do the news take longer to arrive there?’ and all kinds of silly jokes that to my impressionable ears, made the situation more unbearable.

I have this one memory which today makes me chuckle but at the time was traumatic. I came back from school in tears –I must have been in first grade- and when my mother asked what had happened I confessed the teacher had called me a little farmer. Apparently, I had been asked where I lived and when I explained it, I was told that since I live in a small farm I was a little ‘campesina’ or a little farmer. There was no harm intended and today I realise what a privilege it was to have grown up in such a place, but at the time it felt like a curse I would have to carry for life.

As an adolescent, the challenges were slightly different; parties were out of bounds as traveling at night was not easy –the last bus to Cota would stop when the party was just getting started. I also remember saying my family lived ‘in the north’ which in the Bogota context is where the wealthy live. It was my double-edge attempt to hide where I lived and to pretend we were of a higher social class we could ever dream of. ‘North’ was technically true as that was the direction in which the town is located, except it went beyond the city boundaries.

Fast forward to 2010 when I first moved to Cape Town. I had just found a small studio flat in Woodstock and I was terribly proud. I invited a friend who lived in Muizenberg, where I had considered moving instead, and excitedly showed her the view of the busy city with the mountain in the background. She was in disbelief, she couldn’t understand why I would trade the proximity of the sea to the sound of cars, people and urban chaos. I tried to explain to her I had been raised in the mountains and craved city, noise, people and streets. I then proceeded to stay in the city for the following 8 years and enjoyed every bit of it and although Cape Town is nowhere near a big urban centre, it filled some of the void.

I am now back in Colombia, in a more rural context than I grew up in and only visit Bogota, “the big city,” infrequently. It is an interesting contrast and one I am trying hard to be mindful about and to enjoy. As I write this, I can hear the roosters while the sun breaks through a thick layer of clouds. Around us, there are only cows and grass, with a few neighbours in the distance. It is the perfect place to pause and connect with the quiet wisdom of nature.

Nevertheless, when I find myself in Bogota, something awakens inside. Despite the devastating traffic jams, seeing lots of people on the street going about their day sparks joy and excitement. The hustle and buzzle of cities is something that I am still innately attracted to. Whether it is the deficit in urban exposure as a child or an intrinsic desire to be with others, there is something that works in the city for me, which explains my obsession with public space, streets and how we all relate in that context.

Last weekend I discovered there might be a middle ground though, and that is the vibrant life some towns in this country can offer. They weave together the beauty of natural landscapes with the idiosyncrasies of their human dwellers, which is also something I learnt to appreciate growing up.

Visiting quaint little towns was indeed a big family activity: during school holidays, we would pack up a hearty breakfast and no later than 5am we were on our way to exploring the little nooks and crannies of the province of Boyacá. The routine was simple: as the sun rose, wherever that moment found us, we would stop along the road, unpack and eat our breakfast. We would then arrive at the first town and my father would ask the kids to take our modelling positions so he could take a photo of the church. I am still unsure how many photos we took of the same churches over the years, but there were many. We would then walk around the plaza, do a mini reconnaissance of the key points of the town: church, check, City hall, check, food market, check and would then move on to the next town.

Each visit had a little story playing in the background, as my father was a local history buff. He knew so much, it was a bit like listening to a book while driving. I only wish we had recorded some of them so as I make the same trips today as a grown up, I could recognise some of the interesting facts and figures about these charming towns.

Last weekend, I drove my mother and I to Villa de Leyva an Ráquira, two very traditional and popular towns, which history and interesting anecdotes I missed because dad is no longer with us, but got to enjoy another aspect of our family travel and that was shopping for local products. These two towns have a great offering when it comes to food and handcraft. We ate loads of ‘arepas’ (the traditional Colombian flat bread), bought a few clay pieces, met a couple of artisans and revelled in the memories of yesteryear when as kids we had visited the same towns and they had been so different, so much smaller and with less traffic.

The rural-urban internal conflict remains, but in a more sober and joyous way. I am learning to appreciate the beauty of both and the privilege of having access to them on a regular basis. My thirst for human contact, urban energy and city-life needs to be quenched while the space, both physical and mental, the countryside is giving me cannot be replaced with anything else. It is vital for this little farmer’s soul who also needs it to feel fully at home.

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Marcela Guerrero Casas

Marcela Guerrero Casas

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.