Reid Sassman recently completed a year teaching English and studying Spanish in Bucaramanga, Colombia. He traveled the country extensively and reports that stereotypes about Colombia are exaggerated.
My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Colombia and even though I never spoke Spanish growing up, I always wanted to visit Colombia and get to know the Colombian side of my family tree. When I told my Colombian relatives I was considering moving to Colombia to study Spanish and teach English, they practically came to my house to help me pack my bags. That level of hospitality has been a consistent feature of my travels throughout this beautiful country. Thailand is famous for its friendly locals and The Thai Smile, but it cannot compete with how friendly complete strangers have been to me in Colombia. From my year, I found it to be a wonderful country and an excellent experience. With such friendly people and beautiful small towns like Barichara, Colombia is well worth the visit. This is doubly true now that the major dangers (FARC and kidnapping) have subsided greatly in the past 5 years.
Kidnappings, the FARC, and Tourism
Kidnapping was a common practice of the communist rebel forces (known as FARC, their acronym in Spanish) since the 1970s. It reached a peak of 3,500 victims in 2001. Since then, however, the number has dropped dramatically (fewer than 600 a year). This can be traced to the declining influence of the FARC, which has dwindled from an estimated peak of 40,000 members to less than 8,000 today. Kidnappings are now mostly confined to rural areas and highways, making Colombia a reasonably safe tourist destination. Cartagena, in particular, has witnessed an explosion of tourism in the last 5 years. The impressive Fort San Felipe, excellent cuisine, and friendly locals are quickly making Cartagena a popular stop for Caribbean cruise ships.
Drugs and Colombian Culture
It's debatable whether Colombia is more famous for its cocaine or kidnappings, but the fact is Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine. This is another culturally sensitive issue, as the vast majority of Colombians are not involved in the drug industry, but are constantly asked about drugs anytime they travel abroad. In my experience, drugs have a worse social stigma in Colombia than in the United States, because of the large role drugs have played in financing armed conflict and holding back the country’s development from foreign investment.
Colombia has a well-diversified economy with major industries including textiles, food processing, chemicals, coal, emeralds, and the previously mentioned drugs and tourism. Agriculture is also a major part of the Colombian economy with world famous coffee and flowers leading the way, but bananas, tobacco, corn, and cocoa are also major products. I believe the agricultural sector in particular is a major opportunity in Colombia because the vast majority of agricultural products are grown organically, but are not being marketed and sold at organic prices in global markets. There is a lot of potential in the Colombian agricultural economy and growth continues.
Cultural Understanding of Time
Latin America is famous for having a loose concept of time compared to their punctual neighbors, North Americans (aka Americans). This cultural difference is easily the hardest adjustment I had to make living in Colombia this past year. I regularly showed up for events, dinners, and meetings at what I thought was the starting time, only to be amazed again and again when the actual event began an hour or more after the scheduled time. Some will claim this cultural difference applies only to social gatherings, but in my experience it is quite common for businesses to open 2 hours after their posted hours, and for students to show up 30 minutes to an hour into a class I was teaching without a hint of embarrassment. One thing that really helped me to understand (and more importantly to accept) the culturally different understanding of time was improving my Spanish. For example, Colombians will frequently use the word “ahorita” which translates as a diminutive for “now,” meaning literally “little now.” In practice, ahorita can mean anything from 5 minutes to 2 hours or even longer. Colombians universally understand this and ahorita is used as a perfectly acceptable answer for the time of an event. Needless to say, many time-sensitive Americans find ahorita mind-boggling.
The cultural difference goes beyond the individual level and whether a person is punctual or habitually tardy. It goes all the way down to the basic meaning of the words of the language. Language is the lens through which we understand reality, and a deeper understanding of Spanish shows that it should come as no surprise that the Colombian reality of time is fundamentally different from the American reality.
It is discoveries such as these that have made studying Spanish so worthwhile to me, and why I believe that learning the language really is critical to learning the culture of another country. I cannot claim to have adopted the Colombian attitude towards time, but I have learned not to disparage it. It's simply different.
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