No, Colombia is Not What You Think

The first word of advice for anyone wanting to travel to Colombia. Colombia, the country, is spelled with an O, not a U. It’s not a brand, and it’s definitely not a river either. So, as far as anyone is concerned, you always knew it was spelled with an O.

To classify Colombia under the umbrella of a singular identity would be to consider the United States as such; one simply cannot create a universal picture of what life in Colombia looks like. From my limited perspective, I would like to share some thoughts and feelings I have had while living in Barranquilla, Colombia’s 4th largest city. These thoughts are not meant to critique, rather I hope that they will help foster a culture of open-minded thinking for all experiences. Here are a few of my takeaways.

Different Doesn’t Mean Worse

Moving to a different continent will surely bring a lot of changes, and at times, some significant culture shock. When I first moved to Barranquilla, I surely felt the stress that comes from being in a completely different environment. On the first day of classes, Margarita, the sweet lady with whom I am living with, showed me how to take the bus. There are no bus stops, we just walked to the street the bus crosses and called for it to stop in the middle of the road. As it stopped, cars honked behind us and around us and I followed Margarita straight up onto the bus. The bus started moving so fast as we started to get on that half of me was almost left stranded on the street. A sigh of relief after successfully getting on the bus was instantaneously drowned out when I looked up to see the bus completely full. When I say full, I mean full. There was absolutely no space, even to stand. But somehow, we made it, and I thought to myself, “There is no possible way that I will ever figure out how to ride this bus.” Countless thoughts and doubts were swarming in my head all day and for most of the first week. I knew I hated taking the bus. But did I really hate it?

I can tell you now, 2 months later, that I’m grateful for the bus. There is no doubt that at times it is hard; when there are a lot of people, when it’s excruciatingly hot, or when you have to jump off before it fully stops. However, I am grateful for what the bus provides, and I wouldn’t want to change it in any way. The buses are so efficient in creating a wonderful public transportation system that helps transports a lot of people very quickly. They provide routes all over the city, connecting each neighborhood together. I have learned to love the bus services, it sure makes my life a whole lot easier. It provides the means so that I can travel to my classes on time, meet up with friends for brunch or a fun night out; it is the way of life. Yes, the bus was an experience completely unique to what I am familiar with at home, but that’s a good thing.

As Safe as Anywhere

Like all cities and countries, problems exist. Something bad can always happen, and it is important to prepare properly and always be conscious of your circumstances. There is a saying here, “no da papaya”, which literally translates to “don’t give them papaya”, but essentially means don’t act in a way that would create an easy opportunity for someone to take advantage of you. Don’t walk alone in the streets late at night, don’t openly show your valuables, don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket. That being said, I would give anyone I know that exact same advice if they were planning to visit any major city in the US. Here in Barranquilla, I feel as safe as I would anywhere. Again, because things are different, it doesn’t mean that they are worse. I see problems here in Barranquilla that I don’t see at home in the USA; however, I see problems at home that are not prevalent here. It is valid to have concerns, I definitely had many, but don’t let these doubts and uncertainties overshadow the plethora of good that can be found.  

Look Towards the Future

Colombia has had its problems. A history full of violence and heartache is hard to move past, but as I meet so many people here, I am amazed by the vigor they have to make Colombia a safer and happier place. I cannot judge Colombia today for what it used to be 20 years ago; it would not be fair to the progress that has been made since then. Colombia has changed in so many ways. I am constantly surprised by the love and kindness I receive from many of the people I meet here. Colombia is a melting pot of many people and cultures.

In Santa Marta, a city on the coast of the Caribbean, there stands a monument that depicts 4 individual faces, one on each side, that represent the diversity found through the region. The south facing face depicts the Indigenous peoples, who were the first to call this area home. On the east side, the Spanish and European. The West depicts the African heritage and the North the Arabic. All of these races and cultures are essential to the makeup of this country. On top of the statue stands the Greek Goddess Persephone who represents spring and agriculture, growth, prosperity, and happiness for everyone. At times, the significance of which this statue represents is lost to the reality and difficulties of the world, but it stands as a constant reminder to the resolve that each and every person should have; that of creating a better society for everyone. I can see so many people that are constantly working for a brighter future. The people of Colombia don’t want to be remembered for what they used to be. They want to be known for who they are and believed in for who they can become.

This graffiti translates to “Long live the students who fight.”

Living here has opened my eyes to even the smallest aspects of these unique perspectives. The journey of understanding can be frustrating at times, but it always, as they say, “vale la pena”. It is always worth it. It is worth the effort of learning the language and the customs. Colombia is so much different than I thought it would be and I am so glad I am here to see it with my own eyes. I believe that true changes in perspective come when we stop looking at a city full of houses, but we start seeing a city full of homes. Home, however one chooses to define it, is a place that brings love, hope, and peace.

Jonathan Lingard is an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in Barranquilla, Colombia.

Author: Jonathan Lingard

Hi! I spent the past few months living in Colombia and loved writing about my time there! In my internship this past summer, I focused on writing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) blogs. I found a passion for writing and helping educate the world about the value that all people and experiences have. We can learn so much from the world around us and I hope to bring some of that knowledge to as many people as I can.

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