Air and noise in Bogota

The third day back home in Melby, Denmark, I heard the ringing of the ice cream truck bell, took my wallet and rushed to the gravel road even though it was raining. Not that I was desperate to get some ice cream. But it was the first sound of human life on an otherwise silent summer day.

The neighbors in the big house to the right are probably at their vacation home in Spain, the single man on the opposite side of the road must be at work, and in any case I hardly ever see him. 

I bought a package of strawberry ice cream, another of vanilla and a third with lemon sorbet. I caught myself thinking about when it had been the last time I had bought ice cream from an ice cream truck. It must have been 20 years ago, when my kids very small and the ice cream truck came once a week to the social housing community where we were living. 

Two weeks have passed since I came home from Colombia. I have been busy chasing spiders and watering all the small pine trees we planted last summer. It had not rained for months and a couple of trees had died.

In Bogota, the capital of Colombia, there was no silence and no lack of rain. At it’s 2.6 kilometers of elevation and with eight million people on a huge plateau surrounded by the Andes mountains, it has the same climate all year round, the daily temperature being 10-17 degrees centigrade with some rain most days.

Wherever I travelled or stayed in Bogota, there was always noise in the background – mainly from road traffic, but sometimes from airplanes that seemed to make some extra circles around the mesa before landing. In situations when I had to ask for instructions, the background noise was driving me crazy, because it was difficult to hear. It did of course not help that my understanding of Spanish is poor…

But being a foreigner seemed to have advantages. Every stranger I contacted at stations, at cafes, on buses, on streets, anywhere, to ask for instructions, was friendly and helpful. It took time for them to repeat what they said, to walk me to the right bus stop, or even on a couple of occasions to drive me to my accommodation. Of course, I don’t recommend to anybody else to accept rides from strangers, especially in foreign countries, but I believe that my long experience of traveling has given me a rather reliable sense of who to trust.

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The biggest difference between my Danish village and the megacity of Bogota is however the air. The first day back in my small Danish village with 800 people and hardly any car traffic, I was breathing air deep into my lungs realizing that it did not smell of anything, it did not irritate my eyes, nose or throat. It was just – air. In Bogota most of the time, I was aware that there was something wrong with the air. It smelled of diesel. It felt heavy. I had to force myself to stop thinking that I was acquiring some lung disease. I am used to high altitudes and my lungs had been functioning perfectly before I came to Bogota.

One evening I checked on the Internet about the air pollution in Colombia, in cities in particular. It is considerable. Seventy percent of Colombian air pollution comes from its vehicle fleet, of which 60-70 percent derives from diesel emissions. In addition most gasoline vehicles seem to lack emission control.

On the other hand, there are over 600 cities in the world with more air pollution than Bogota. I made a mental note about not planning any travels to these cities…

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