By Finola Southgate
Having reached the over halfway point of my time here in Colombia, thanks to a last-minute race around Bogotá to sort out my visa the day before it ran out – lesson to be learnt kids, do not leave it to the last minute; I had to run to the bank, inhaler in hand, a physical feat for my ever-expanding, empanada-filled body – a few things have dawned on me. Now, this is not going to be a declaration of finding myself, although meeting a real-life sloth in the Amazon nearly pushed me over into ‘gap year’ discourse. Instead, I want to tell you about my experience and why I want you to come and see this country for yourself.
I have no doubt that for some of you when you read “Colombia”, the first words that came running into your head included the following: Guerrillas, cocaine and cartels. Even with the peace accord signed last year, the outpouring of Reggaeton chart-toppers, qualifying for the world cup and the pope’s head bump after his crazy time on tour in Cartagena, the former quartet often overshadow the latter of what we culturally associate with Colombia.
When you read “Colombia” the first words that came running into your head included the following: Guerrillas, cocaine and cartels
The words that fill my head when I think about Colombia are contrasts, culture, nature and calor humano (warmth from others). Apart from a brief stint of two hours in Brazil for beer and ice cream, followed by a few days exploring the Peruvian jungle, I have seen diverse landscapes of beaches, jungles and cities. I have attended a techno festival in the middle of a desert and discovered the truth of Shakira’s famous quote that “hips indeed don’t lie” whilst attempting to dance salsa. I have drunk aguardiente and coffee to my heart’s content, learnt a whole array of ‘chevere’ and ‘chimba’ Colombian phrases and, of course, studied a bit in the meantime. All of this whilst never having to take one step across a border – Colombia truly offers all you could desire (minus the comfort of Great British cuisine).
Living in Bogotá came as a shock; my small-city comforts were uprooted, with a six AM alarm clock provided by the morning traffic outside my window. With an invisible line between the north and south, Bogotá itself is an enormous capital full of contrasts in wealth and estratos (social strands). Cultural shocks transcend into student life, with classes that can start from six thirty in the morning until eight in the evening. The university system itself is different, measured in semesters with continual quizzes, readings and tests, instead of cramming the entire course into a twelve-hour intensive Billy B session.
Bogotá itself is an enormous capital full of contrasts in wealth
You never have to be bored in Columbia and, as the saying goes, seek and ye shall find (or, get Facebook to do it for you). There are free festivals in the beautiful parks, the biggest nightclub in Latin America, independent coffee shops equipped with a mini-tejo set and on Sunday, many roads are closed so that people can cycle freely around the city. Although you can experience four seasons in a day in Bogota, the airport and bus station is never too far away if you need a change of scene.
Food varies from region to region, but some of the savoury essentials to try include bandeja paisa, arepas and empanadas. If you’re looking to satisfy a sweet tooth, then anything containing arequipe will do the trick. I could write a whole book on my love for plantain (cooking bananas) and how, despite my Irish heritage, it has knocked potatoes out of the top spot in the carbohydrate league. But, aside from what could be the beautiful ode to a vegetable ever written, prepare to eat well and cheaply. Huge three-course lunch options are available for as little as £2.50.
Finally, let’s talk about what I believe to be the most important part of my Colombian experience: the people. There is no single colombianidad, to such an extent that when discussing the question of a national identity, one has to take into account the diversity and individuality of each region and its people, history and culture.
On a bus from Medellin to Guatapé, my first solo travel adventure, I sat down next to Freddy (a 50-something security camera fixer from Medellin). Faced with a two-hour bus journey, I decided to ask Freddy a bit about himself and what he was going to Guatapé for. After our entire bus journey discussing life, family and our different views about religion, he bought me a hot chocolate and invited my family and me to meet his own on our future visit to Medellin. Never be afraid to talk to Colombians, so far I have been invited to family dinners, graduation parties, home concerts and even received marriage proposals – another entertaining story.
Never be afraid to talk to Colombians, so far I have been invited to family dinners, graduation parties, home concerts and even received marriage proposals
Of course, always have your wits about you and take any precautions you deem necessary whilst travelling here: always ask for the taxi’s official documents, do not carry large amounts of money and do not take your phone out in the street. Colombian’s say ‘don’t dar la papaya’, meaning, if I clearly have a papaya in my hand, then it’s anyone’s to take from me. Don’t let anyone take away your papaya.
In conclusion, Colombia is not just cartels and controversy. For me, it has been a country full of surprises. So far, I’ve seen natural wonders, met some amazing people and learnt a range of things. Not only by speaking Spanish every day, but also living in a capital that is always moving, in a country whose history is so present in its discourse and exploring it at every possible opportunity. If you are thinking about visiting, exploring, studying, working here, my advice is, just do it. De una. You will not regret it.
Photographs by Finola Southgate