Colombian Reflections

My time with Prints of Hope and in Colombia ended in late July.  For the past two months, I’ve done more traveling: Panama, Brazil, Peru, Chile, and now Argentina.  I’ll be writing more about those adventures in upcoming posts.  But given that the six month stint in Colombia was the starting point, as well as the longest I have ever been in another country (I only spent four months in Ireland after graduate school.), this post is a general reflection upon my time and experiences in Colombia.

Striking a pose at the Boltero Museum in Bogota

While I don’t really want this to be a typical “travel blog” about where I went and what I did, but more focused on the needs I observe in different areas and communities, and how these needs could be or are being addressed; much of the important aspects and details related to that have been covered in my previous posts.

Therefore, this will be closer to an “experiential” post.  First and foremost, upon reflection, I am glad I took the leap and began this trip.  And my time in Colombia with the Prints of Hope was a good start to it.  While it didn’t go exactly as expected (discussed in earlier posts), it offered me an excellent opportunity to learn more about nonprofit management.  And more importantly, it gave me the chance to experience a new culture, in a different language, which proved to be a challenge for me to rise to in order to make the best of my time there.

One of my last nights out in Bogota (3 blond Americans and 3 Colombians)

Although the language barrier was certainly difficult, for me, the general cultural barrier was the larger struggle.  Prior to leaving the US, I happened to discuss Colombia with a few different people who had visited there, and they all told me how much they loved it.  This was reinforced by many travelers that I crossed paths with while in Colombia, who talked about how much they were enjoying the country.  Having lived there for six months, and discussed the country and the culture with some of my roommates, I realized that an old cliché is probably best for how I would describe Colombia:

It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

Colombia is an amazing travel destination, and I highly recommend it for tourism.  It is strikingly beautiful with such a variety of landscapes and climates.  There are different vibrant cultures across the country in each region, and I never even made it to Medellín, which often seems to be most travelers’ favorite city.  You could spend weeks and months in Colombia and discover something new each and every day.

With a couple of YMCA friends (Carolina & Leydi) at Monserrate overlooking Bogota

However, I found it difficult to build something of a life in Bogotá.  Now a good portion of that could be specific to the city life of Bogotá, but some of the reasons I believe are more general to Colombia, and how they interact with my own personality.  There were two main cultural aspects that really caused difficulties for me.

Group of YMCA volunteers having a night out after a training camp

One was something that many travelers had told me they loved about Colombia.  And that is the reputation Colombians have for being friendly.  That seems like it would be a positive, but I noticed that Colombian “friendliness” is a different type of “friendly”.  It seems to be a “cold” friendly, rather than a “warm & welcoming” friendly.  Again, a big part of it could be Bogotá, but I noticed it in other cities as well.  Basically, in my experience, unless you already had a connection with someone, while people would be friendly when you spoke with them, they never made an effort to start a conversation or be truly welcoming.  This is actually understandable, given the troubles that Colombia has faced over the years with drug cartels, guerillas, and paramilitary groups.  To survive, one would need to be friendly so as not to offend anyone, but at the same time, maintain a wariness about strangers.  The exception to this cautiousness seemed to be the people who obviously had an ulterior motive, to sell you something in one way in form or another.  To be honest, I have come to have a visceral reaction to the word “amigo” as it was almost always spoken by some aggressive vendor, with an obvious tone of inauthenticity, dripping with hidden condescension.

As I said though, if you do have an established connection with people, the Colombians are extremely welcoming and wonderful.  I was lucky to meet amazing people during my time in Colombia through my work with the YMCA, including people that opened up their homes to me, and I truly appreciate their generosity.

My roommates, Elena (left), Laura (bottom left), and Chloe (right) and one of the teachers we worked with, Lili (center) at the teachers’ appreciation party

The second struggle was something that I already had a little bit of experience with, but until you are truly immersed in it, you don’t really understand it.  And that is the general “casualness” and “indirectness” of Latin Americans, and this is extremely strong in Colombia.  I never before really appreciated how different that is than my nature.  Maybe it is my Northern European heritage, but most people who know me, know that I like to be in control of every situation as much as possible, which is very un-Colombian.  Qué será  or “what will be” is a common saying and not one that I do well with.  I also have a tendency to be as explicit as possible when writing emails or communicating otherwise, so there is no room for misunderstanding.  I do not like subtlety when it comes to communication, but subtlety is more the language here than Spanish is.  Especially the aversion to saying the word No.  Which led to so many frustrations for me.  Chloe, Elena, and Laura began to laugh about and wonder when I would finally explode from the countless frustrations I had due to what I felt was a lack of communication and/or planning about one thing or another.

Rock Al Parque. An annual free music festival in Bogota, in Parque Simón Bolívar

This “casualness” also extended into social life as well.  Making plans with friends was always an unknown.  My roommates and I had learned that you need to make multiple plans for a given night, because you never knew who would actually follow through and who would cancel.  Often, a group would talk about doing something on a night for a week or two, but then when it came, nothing would happen.  Then, another night, a group outing would suddenly happen with only a few hours’ notice (if that). While I like to be spontaneous, and the latter situation is completely fine with me; I have always been bothered when people cancel plans, and it happened with so much frequency in Colombia, that it became a constant source of frustration for me.  But on those occasions when a night out did actually occur, I almost always had an incredible time.  Whether it was my pathetic attempts at salsa dancing (despite my friends best efforts at teaching me), nights out at a variety of clubs, getting locked inside Parqúe Simón Bolívar after sunset and having to help each other either through or over the fencing to get out, or any of the other small adventures we had, they all helped to make my time in Colombia memorable.

There were no Holsteins at the Colombian Ag Expo in Bogota, so I had to settle for an Ayrshire

All that being said, this was an incredible opportunity to learn about another culture (and my own quirks), as well as make new friends that I hope to keep in contact with over the years.  This was only possible by forcing myself to look for such opportunities to travel and to participate in cultural exchange programs.  I have received comments and messages from people talking about how they wish they could travel and do some of these adventures. This has been common from former students.  Especially for those of you, what is stopping you?

The Lego convention came to Bogota

I am fully aware that I am fortunate with my place in life that I can go on a trip such as this to travel the world.  However, there are many other opportunities out there for you to travel and see the world, with limited time and financial constraints.  I have met so many people that are travelling and finding unique ways to afford it.  One friend spent a few weeks in the Amazon for free working as a translator on the tours groups.  I just finished an amazing two weeks doing a workaway in Taltal, Chile helping teach English at a nonprofit and had my accommodation and most of my food paid for.

If you don’t have personal or family responsibilities holding you back, and you are thinking about traveling to experience a foreign country, don’t find excuses, find a way to make it happen.

Here are some links to just a few of the ways you can travel to new places, have unique experiences, and do it rather cheaply (or maybe even make some money!).  Most of them require a commitment of at least 2 weeks, but you often have some free time. This is the organization I went through for the program in Colombia, but it also has other programs for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.  It is important to note that foreigners can get temporary work visas for Australia and New Zealand, but only until you are 30 (AUS) or 35 (NZ) years old.  So don’t put this off for too long! A website where you can find free lodging (and occasionally food) around the world in exchange for working.  A common set-up is working at a hostel, cleaning or answering phones or something similar.  If you are multilingual, you can also be a translator for tours and such, and get to go on those tours for free.   This is probably the most popular site, and you are more likely to find places in popular tourist spots.  Similar to workaway, except more focused on volunteering with nonprofits and projects.  Since they are nonprofits, there might not be as much covered as the ones on workaway. WWOOFing is going to work on small farms dedicated to sustainable farming practices.  Often both food and lodging are provided in exchange for working on the farm.   Obviously, these will not be in major cities.

There are other sites that you can find free housing that I don’t have experience with:

There are also many programs to work as an English teacher and/or au pair in other countries.  You can do a google search for these to find different programs.

For all of these, make sure you do your research and try to find hosts that have been reviewed and seem legitimate, and always trust your gut if something doesn’t seem right!

The world is an amazing place that is waiting to be explored.  I’ll leave you with a famous quote by Mark Twain:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.