Elevation

They say that, to remedy a fear of heights, one should concentrate on looking left and right like windshield wipers. This contrary, concerted act breaks the physical stimulus-response to phobia, granting the body a temporary reprieve in which to halt the self-perpetuating fear cycle.

What is acrophobia but a fear of vulnerability, of losing control, of falling into an abyss? It’s rooted in a reasonable reluctance towards bodily injury and death, but it goes beyond that to a decidedly unreasonable and paralyzing reaction to heights. I silently debated this as Brad and I waited in line for the gondolas in Medellín. Was I actually getting on board this thing? We had ridden the commuter rail from the communa of El Poblado to San Javier station, scaling a flight of steps that would have had us panting in Bogotá where the elevation is an additional 3,700 feet.

As I discovered within my first few hours, the elevation in parts of Colombia dramatically impacts one’s entire physiology —cognitive ability to headaches and physical performance— especially for those of us who live at sea level. Walking in Bogotá, I’d find myself out of breath mid-sentence, even on a flat street at a normal pace; talking excitedly felt like running a marathon. While the elevation of Bogotá proper is 8,600 feet, its mountain, Monserrate, actually surpasses 10,000 feet, the barrier at which one typically reclines her airplane seat and turns on electronics.

At 4,905 feet, Medellín has more oxygenated air, which we were thankful for, given the hills and stairs we traversed during our time there. Still, in the city’s outskirts, the height differential from valley to hillside is quite steep, making daily errands challenging for residents. Brad and I decided to visit Medellín, rather than Cartegena or Cali, to investigate the transit system and urban design improvements that made it the 2013 City of the Year by the Urban Land Institute. (Yes, we’re nerds.)

What I didn’t consider, even after reading that the other finalist cities were New York and Tel Aviv, was what it meant for Medellín to achieve this distinction. I haven’t visited Tel Aviv, but I can say that it’s unfair to compare New York with Medellin in terms of urban development. On the web, one sees photos of modern gondolas inching up the hill and a few blocks of carefully landscaped streets, from which it’s easy to assume that Medellín is now akin to Manhattan, which it [blissfully] is not. Upon arriving, I had to recall my expectations back to earth and start again.

Brad and I discussed this as our gondola arrived in the chute. It was our turn. My heart beat faster. Six passengers coming down from the mountain got out casually as the cable car turned through its path. A transit monitor nodded at six of us to enter the car as it came around the curve. Just before ascending, the door slid closed and latched in a way that should have been reassuring. Still, I wrapped my fingers tightly over the edge of the bench seat. I tried not to picture the cable snapping, the car dangling, and the supposedly secure door coming open, leaving us to tumble to our deaths on the rooftops below. In the seconds before, I would hang onto the metal car by a sweaty, slipping grasp until, one by one, we would succumb to the fatal and quite inevitable fall.

Brad asked me something like, You having fun? or You doing okay? to which I nodded unconvincingly. Inside, I cringed, wondering if our car would sway in the wind the way that ferris wheel cabs do, giving the sense of unprotected weightlessness that some find thrilling. For me, the vertigo that comes from heights stems from a perception of vulnerability — how perilously close we are to hurtling down even though we aren’t. This feeling abated slightly from one mid-station to the next, the trip becoming slightly less frightening the closer we hovered above the rooftops; I convinced myself that we might somehow survive a twenty-foot drop.

Thankfully, my fear didn’t prevent me from finding beauty and awe in the larger sense, even under duress: as we ascended, I occasionally peered over the edge to notice rooftops where families laid out clothes to dry, the piles of ruddy bricks they used to build precarious cliffside houses, and the streets filled with people walking to work or to drink jugo at nearby fruit stands. These people are very poor and, until recently, traveled hours on foot and busses between home and the city center, journeys that were unsafe, unsavory or both. This is not to say that the gondolas or rail system have solved the larger social inequality, but life for many in Medellín has drastically improved because of them.

We got off at one mid-station to see the Spain Library only to find it wrapped in construction sheeting; apparently, its building envelope is a total failure (so much for value engineering in the design-build process.) I wasn’t sure what to expect of the surrounding Santo Domingo communa. This was a neighborhood we absolutely wouldn’t walk around in at night, yet it wasn’t squalid as I pictured it might be. The last decade’s modernizations have brought storm drains and sewers, so the streets were relatively clean and clear of debris. Like everywhere else in Colombia, I felt conspicuous as a gringa, but not threatened. (Admittedly, Brad by my side helped immensely.)

There were colorful buildings, commerce and activity on the steep, narrow streets that wound to the top of the mountain. Upon summiting the Parque Biblioteca España, we found unimpeded, sweeping views of the city available almost nowhere else. In Seattle, the wealthiest people live on high in neighborhoods like Queen Anne or Capitol Hill, but here the poorest do, starting as squatters who eventually take hold of the land legally or through the inaction of the owners. Families live here for generations, handing down make-shift houses from parents to children, happier for some kind of roof over their heads even if that roof is made from overlapping sheets of corrugated metal. Woe betide those afraid of heights.

On the way back down, I had trouble looking out as the valley opened up. It was too vast, too possible for us to drop off the cable as the car gave a little hiccup between one pole and the next. The calm passengers with us in the car might as well have been sitting at a café. They reminded me that my perspective was not a universal reality, but in fact, all in my mind.

This is the nature of human perspective, not just phobias but values and social standing, which Brad and I discussed a lot during our time together. Colombia’s caste system is a rigid stratification that hard work alone does not necessarily overcome. The value and meaning of skin color is one such example for, as it seems the world over, the whiter one’s skin is in Colombia, the more elevated one assumes the person’s caste is. I was surprised to discover that the portraits of Colombia’s former presidents depicted one white-looking man after another, descendants of Spanish colonists who overthrew the indigenous peoples and pillaged the country’s riches in their “discovery” of cities like Bogotá.

As a child of first-generation American grandparents, my role was to rise. I was programmed to achieve, to lift myself above their industrial and manual labor lives, as if their destiny wasn’t good enough for me. My mother’s family didn’t talk about our Italian heritage; they suppressed this past in favor of blending in as Americans, speaking English and severing all ties with the mother land in the hopes of a brighter economic future. It’s ironic that my knowledge of Italian customs and country has only come about through my own adult study and not from heritage passed down by my family, which I can confirm, became as inertly cultured as any Midwest family could be. Just before my uncle died in 2011, he read my book about Civita and asked, “What’s that word basta mean?”

“It means, enough,” I said. Though my grandparents spoke fluent Italian, they decided not to teach it to their children, who they feared would be held back from integrating with other kids.

My uncle chuckled. “Your grandmother said that to us all the time, and I always thought she was calling me bastard!”

While this story makes me laugh, it also makes me sad. Shouldn’t multilingualism be an enrichment or an advantage rather than a detriment? When we separate from our roots, decidedly deny our family’s history, what other things do we lose? In Colombia, a divorce from one’s lineage is difficult in that lineage is evident (or at least decided) by skin color, if not by name. Brad noted that a person’s given name can reveal all, as many who are considered lower born in Colombian society are given foreign first names. It’s possible to compartmentalize someone purely by a grouping of letters without even meeting him.

It’s hard not to feel a misplaced sense of injustice at this. In Bogotá, you are judged by what neighborhood you live in. The poorest districts have reduced utility rates, which is great, but if you tell someone you live in district one or two, they can guess your economic status. Your very name can restrict your social and political mobility. (I can’t imagine what it involves to change it.) Jobs, clubs, parties, schools, restaurants, friendships — they are open or closed to you depending upon where you’ve come from rather than who you are and where you’re going. Building a life through sweat equity is something that the truly elite in Colombia do not have to do. Though things seem to be shifting in the Millennial generation, the possibilities are still far from what can happen in a city like Seattle today.

As foreigners in Colombia, people like Brad and I are granted a special caché in social circles. Yet, when we were offered the opportunity to join a party for those in a higher echelon, we declined. Something about it felt disingenuous; neither of us wanted to play the part of exotic animals on display, I think. Even at home, I find it difficult to participate in this crowd, no matter how lovely the setting. Whereas I once aspired to rub powdered shoulders with the elite —part of the programming to rise, rise, rise— my perception of glimpses from the top is that the elevation change is drastic. The separation between that life and the way most everyone else lives feels as precarious as a faulty cable wire. I sense this within my own stratum, even — how easily it is to lose sight of the world beneath my vantage point, to forget the people who paved the way before me, or the ones who never will.

Do I want to be the kind of person who asks —and adjusts my value of another human being— based on her answer to, “Where did you go to school and what does your father do?” Who makes these glass ceilings we spend our lives bumping up against, and why do we tacitly uphold them? Why do we fear falling from them if they derive from values that we don’t necessarily agree with? I also ask this of my fellow female colleagues as, apart from race, the same dynamics can be witnessed between genders.

In spite of perceived barriers, the concept of social and economic ascension seems hardwired in the very American way I experience it. A hopeful (and naive) part of me wants everyone to have access to self-betterment no matter where they’re starting from, if it’s something they truly desire. Growing up, my family didn’t talk about race or class, but achievement. Then again, they had the luxury of doing so. While my family wasn’t wealthy, I was born into a privileged life in a privileged country where opportunities were possible for me that weren’t possible for others living in the same places at the same times.

What I’m coming to understand is that my life comes with responsibility as well as benefit: I can use my privilege to help others rather than remaining blind to inequality because it doesn’t inhibit me personally. If all the good I do today is inspire someone to consider the power they unknowingly wield, it’s a start. Colombia opened my eyes to this, and for the privilege of privilege, I am grateful. This is why travel, no matter the destination, is so important. It affords a means of empathetic inquiry and testing between the lives we live and those we encounter elsewhere, teaching us to be better global citizens.

Teetering from that gondola forced me to question this as much as my fear of falling. As a self-made person, perhaps I am more afraid of losing what I’ve worked so hard for: my job, savings, career, relationships. Knowing what it takes to rise above the circumstances of one’s birth makes a person keenly aware of not only what she has, but what life is like without those comforts and how quickly they can disappear, no matter the work that went into establishing them. Learning to trust in the resilience and determination beneath these worldly gifts is where real power lies. Perhaps the only way to exorcise the fear of falling is to realize that those things cannot be taken away if our sense of self is strong.

Back in Bogotá, Brad used his Tapsi app to call a cab on my last morning. “What’s the driver’s name?” I asked, pulling my bags together.

Brad smiled and said, “Giovanni Arroyo.”

“Think he’s Italian?” I asked hopefully.

“No,” he replied. “No, I don’t.”

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2 thoughts on “Elevation

  1. Gabriela: This is such a well-rounded piece of writing. Your weave your way to your primary points so seamlessly. I really enjoyed reading it!

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