Taking Colombia with me

I’m leaving home to go home. The feeling shouldn’t be unfamiliar to many of us, those who have been to college or have made a life in a town different from where they grew up. I’ll be eating mom’s cooking, hearing Bella and Benji’s barks echo throughout the house in just three days. I’ll be running down the stairs, only to be told for the nth time in 20 years I might trip, fall and break my bones.

Yes, home: comfortable and familiar.

That is precisely what Bogota has become for me these past 9 weeks, although there’s still more to explore in a city of nine million people.  Those feelings weren’t really there to start though.

I was a bundle of emotions when I first got here. Will I fit in? What will I learn? Will I get lost? Robbed?

At the core of all those questions was this central one: How am I going to figure out this part of me, my Colombian self? You see, for 20 years, Colombian culture has pretty much only existed for me within the walls of my Peoria home.  And when I’d come visit my family every four or so years, I’d live in my family bubble. So then I came to the next question: Do I know what Colombian culture is really like?

The answer is a resounding, “Sort of.” I still know so little about history, geography and politics here, all those forces that shape how people think and act.  But I’ve worked for a Colombian organization, taken Colombian public transportation and have navigated my way through it all. So I’ve learned a few things here or there.

For example: Colombian time mannerisms which usually means being about 10 minutes late.  I, for instance, waited for 40 minutes at a work dinner for everyone to arrive for a 7 p.m. reservation. This occurrence isn’t atypical. And I got there at 7:10…(not always, some people are punctual).

People here are a lot less preoccupied with to-do lists and, what sometimes seems sought after, “busyness” I so often see in my circles back in the States. To be honest, I’m guilty of it, too.

There’s a warmth, intimacy, openness and less worry about going from thing, to thing.  Step into a room and expect to say hello to each and every person, even if you don’t know them. (Saying hello usually means shaking hands or a kiss on the cheek). Same thing for when you’re leaving. It’s rude to just say bye to the people you know.

Lunches here are massive. A typical lunch includes soup, main dish, juice and a cup of coffee after.  They’re also an incredible amount of fun at FLIP.  I’m by far the quietest of all my co-workers, making the listening experience all the more enjoyable. I work to pick up colloquial phrases, idioms and the sense of humor here. Our conversations over lunch are honest, blunt, funny and sometimes pretty loud. Everyone wants to express their point of view, meaning things get pretty heated on occasion.

I’ll cherish those hours I spent listening to my co-workers talk, joke and laugh. It was in those moments when I got a real insight into how people here interact. It’s then I got a better idea about the journalistic and legal environment here.  As the saying goes, you have two ears and one mouth; so listen twice as much as you talk.  Who wouldn’t want to when listening to Spanish every day is like listening to music float out of people’s mouths?  Not to mention I will miss hearing salsa or merengue around the corner or from a taxi.

But I could also enumerate the things that are frustrating about living here, like the traffic, the way people just cram onto Transmilenio or just toss their wrappers and other trash in the street. Or I could continue about the things that are upsetting, such as lack of government transparency, recent attacks on civil society by the FARC or the pretty deeply ingrained machismo.

I know this country struggles. I know many of its people suffer, each and every day. They’re the reason I want to come back to work here. Not because of the mountains, the food or the salsa dancing. It’s those who are trying to recover from a half-century conflict who are my motivation to continue learning and bettering myself on a personal and professional level.

Colombia is beautiful and broken. No culture or place is perfect. But isn’t that what love is? Caring, accepting and cherishing for the good, bad and ugly? And working to grow together?

Well then, Colombia, you could say I’m madly in love with you.


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