Living Abroad in Colombia
The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay
"To the land that you go, do as you see.” The first time I heard this phrase I was heading back to Bogota after a 4-by-4 weekend camping trip on the Colombian border near Venezuela with a back-roads caravan. Stopping at a roadside restaurant along the winding highway, I naively devoured blood-sausage and an assortment of innards before the energetic trip leader explained the type of meat juice that was dripping down my wrists. He looked at me a bit cautiously, afraid of my reaction, and explained what I was chewing. I told him I was no longer a vegetarian. Relieved, he said, “A la tierra que fueres, haz lo que vieres.” Similar to “When in Rome,” the famous dicho (saying) became my slogan to embrace adventures and immerse fully into the Colombian experience.
When I received a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship for a year-long post-graduate exchange, the book “Gaviotas” drew my attention. I had read the book while living in the Dominican Republic as a Peace Corps Volunteer working on Environmental Education. Based on a Colombian community devoted to rural environmental sustainability, the book reminded me of the importance of living what we teach. Having just completed two theoretical degrees in environmental work, I chose Colombia hoping for practical examples of what I had studied. I was lured to Bogota by its extensive bike lanes closed to vehicles on Sundays, and abundant outdoor cafes with vertical gardens growing food for consumption. I brushed off well-intentioned concerns for my safety the entire year before I embarked on the scholarship, instead trusting the spirit of travel and my intuition.
Within the first week, I met my Colombian fiancé at a gas station (he bought me a pan de bono—“bonus bread”—the Colombian equivalent of a steaming doughy roll filled with cheese). Before I learned the national motto, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay,” I realized Colombia chose me and I’ve been here almost two years.
Nomadic in nature, deciding to settle in Colombia was not my original intent. I’m learning to take the move in stride and how to be proactive in a land and culture that are not native to me. My original intentions continue to guide me. We now live on a farm in the mountains above Bogota. I am one giant leap closer to my imaginary Gaviotas. Overlooking the green valley of hummingbirds and cows, I am learning which vegetables survive the cold temperatures and various herbs that cure colds and ailments. We are constructing a rain catchment system and channeling the water to a little lake, preparing for the dry season.
Our seventy-five year-old farm hand, Don Julio, is a nature guru. He teaches me something about the land everyday, bringing new flowers to plant or natural remedies for skin problems. I have learned how to listen to the plants and watch the moon for harvesting cycles from him. He works full days under the sun; his hands care for the soil and seeds in a manner that no book can teach.
Before arriving to Colombia, I had lived abroad for three years and traveled many more. I did not expect culture shock to affect me. Yet when I decided to “settle” and really “live here,” the nuances and differences seemed to bother me more than as a student or traveler. I felt like I was watching my life on a movie screen. Big groups of people making jokes in Spanish slang started to intimidate me. Scrutinizing houseguests assessing our décor and cleanliness made me self-conscious. Security police patrolling the roads to Bogota scared me. I agonizingly kept fears and judgments in my head, only to come out in tears afterwards. I had made the big step in life of creating a home and I was far from everyone and everything comfortable, which made all of the little things seem much worse than they really were.
Colombians are incredibly generous and open people and incredibly sensitive to being away from one’s family and friends. I am constantly invited to spend time with friends and their families and checked up on throughout the week. Sunday afternoons are family days; I appreciate the importance they put on spending lots of quality time together.
The pain and loneliness I sometimes feel are opportunities, making me reach out to neighbors and develop projects on my own. I am able to write, travel, teach and meet people in ways that I wouldn’t be able to in other places. The herbs and plants on the farm are teaching me about the beauty of taking root in a place, letting some of the dead leaves fall and continuing to grow, looking for sun.
Living In Colombia
Bogota is a city of nearly nine million people, yet maintains a feeling of many neighborhoods. In my first year in Bogota, I lived in a whirlwind of residential districts. Like most foreigners, I started off in the colorfully charming historic district of La Candelaria, among backpacker hostels, hip modern art museums, renovated colonial houses and salsa dance clubs catering to students’ pocketbooks. Eventually I moved to the north, near the abundant Virrey Park and trendy bar district Zona T, before leaving the city altogether for the quiet respite of the mountains.
The boroughs of the city are more like mini-shopping centers; each neighborhood makes or sells to niche-markets, including leather jackets, piñatas and rustic wooden furniture. The first few times I went to the used car-parts neighborhood, I was amazed that each of the stores have a representative in street, asking what you are looking for, either to sell their products or helpfully point you towards a competitor. This quality of teamwork encompasses the entrepreneur-spirit of the city.
Signing a lease for an apartment in Colombia can determine the future of your life more than getting married, having kids or buying a car. Leases require signatures from two property-owning Colombians that can vouch for your credibility. Most apartment leases are for 1-year, with very little flexibility for subletting—a lesson I learned the hard way. About halfway into our lease, a friend and I tried getting a sub-letter. This led to a series of legal documents, expensive taxi rides across town to meet with the landlady who constantly called to cancel once we got to the café and a series of awkward attempts of renting to friends whom were shooed away from the landlady.
Lesson learned: If for any reason you want to move out before the lease is up, you must give three months notice or be prepared to pay three salaries. If you aren’t sure you’ll live there for a year, find a housing arrangement that doesn’t require your signature.
It really isn’t a cliché — coffee is everywhere in Colombia. It is the binding cultural glue between social classes, a moment of reflection in the morning and a way to warm my hands in Bogota’s afternoon downpours. An avid coffee drinker, I was ecstatic by the prospects of homegrown java before moving to Colombia. Yet I had no idea how transformative a coffee of black gold would be in my life. Strong and dark, the typical cup is bigger than an espresso shot yet smaller than a common mug found in the US.
A business meeting does not begin until a secretary pokes her head in to ask if you’d like tinto, upon which the cleaning lady arrives with spotless white porcelain cups and a silver tray of sugar before negotiations resume. It’s considered blatantly rude to not to be offered a cup of coffee in any office.
The beverage has powerfully transformed me. Coming from a handful of apartments in the United States, I’ve learned how to be more warm and open to guests by having a constant supply of coffee in the cupboards. Construction workers, patrolling police officers, neighbors and almost everyone passing by are invited to our house for a warm mug of coffee. Before meeting potential students or clients, we always meet for a cup of coffee to get to know one another, a slow paced introduction that I’ve learned to love.
Transportation in Bogota is a common conversation topic. Colombians love to complain about traffic jams or share stories about transportation gone awry. The main transportation system, the Transmillenio, is a network of bus lanes in the middle of the highway that function similar to a subway in that they only stop at designated stations. The buses are so packed during rush hour that a popular joke says you get a free massage while ridding the bus. Similarly, the bus system throughout all of Colombia is impressive. I quickly realized I could get to charming small towns on an overnight bus, minimizing my budget for hostels.
Most foreign tourists can obtain a 3-month travel visa at the border or upon arrival to any airport in Colombia. To stay beyond this time period, you must ask for an extension at DAS or risk being subject to pay an exit-fee (ranging between US$150 to US$3,000).
Student visas can be obtained in Colombia or in your home country with proof of paid tuition to a Colombian university. Student visas are issued for six months up to a full year.
Work visas are more difficult to obtain. Almost all work visas must be obtained outside of Colombia (even if you reside in Colombia, you must travel to another country to obtain the work visa), which must be sponsored by a company. It’s said that the processes to obtain a work visa are incredibly complex to protect local Colombians in the workforce. Many American friends traveled to Ecuador to obtain the visa.
Colombia boasts many world-renowned universities and institutes. Some allow students to sign up for classes upon arrival. Others, such as Universidad de los Andes, require an extensive application process. The national university, Bogota-based UNAL, requires students to take an admittance exam, offered in various Colombian consulates abroad or upon arrival in Colombia. In my time at the Universidad de los Andes, I made many friends with students and professors that were devoted to making sure I understood the homework and was able to turn it in.
There is a huge drive for Colombians to learn English. Lots of Colombians study at bilingual schools and are conversationally fluent. The Colombian government has made bilingualism a priority and most companies require employees to take English classes to effectively communicate in the emerging global market. Many institutes hire short-term employees with a 3-month tourist visa or student visa.
Due to the rugged terrain, two sky-scraping mountain ranges and impassable borders with other countries (Amazons to the south, marshes in the north border with Panama), the Colombian dialect is considered “pure” with a strong emphasis on being polite. Colombia exports the most telenovelas and Spanish-language sitcoms, so their variation of Spanish is noteworthy throughout Latin America.
The idiosyncrasies of the language are hilarious, and I definitely learned to use them to my advantage early on. For example, Colombians drop all guards and open all doors for the phrase, “que pena,” an apologetic phrase that basically means you are embarrassed for any multitude of reasons. It also gets your off the hook for pretty much anything.
For many reasons, the country has been closed to foreigners for a long time. Surprised taxi drivers still ask what I’m doing here, commenting that only true love can make such an upheaval worth it. International trade agreements and increased security has opened the doors to visitors in recent years, causing the number of international residents and travelers to increase drastically in the past few years. To the land you go, do what you see!