A native Californian, Mike quit a good job to teach English in Bogota for one year. Here are his thoughts on the Colombian experience nearly four months in. Catch up with him on his blog, The Tall Gringo when you finish reading!
LCO: Where are you from originally, what brought you to Colombia and how long have you been here?
MH: I am originally from Burlingame, California, a small town twenty minutes south of San Francisco. I graduated from the University of California, Davis in 2009 and spent the following year working in green tech public relations in San Francisco. Although it was a good job, I always wanted to travel and do something to help make the world better, so I decided to join WorldTeach, a Harvard-based program that places volunteer teachers in developing communities around the world. I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Latin America and after reading up on Colombia, was fascinated by its culture and history. I guess I was also excited by the prospect of going somewhere potentially dangerous, since my friends and family all thought I was crazy for even thinking about going. I have been living and teaching English in Bogotá, Colombia for the past 3½ months and will be here until December 2011.
LCO: What was your first impression of Colombia? Was it what you expected?
MH: Since prior to this trip, I had never been to a Latin American country before, I had no idea what to expect when I first arrived here. My first impression was how there seemed to be an inexplicable method to the madness of the Bogotá mass transit system. At first glance, it seems chaotic, but once you learn to navigate it, it’s manageable. To be honest, I came into this experience trying not to have many expectations and to just go with the flow—which has been serving me well thus far.
LCO: What have you learned from the locals since you arrived?
MH: After living with a Colombian host family and working with Colombian teachers and students for the past few months, I have learned that Colombians are an amiable and hardworking people. Although I haven’t gotten a chance to visit the other regions yet, I am told that you can’t classify a single Colombian culture—every region has its own unique flavor. I have also learned that the people here are sick of corrupt government and all of the violence that comes with the drug trade. They want to live in peace and make a decent, honest living to support their families.
LCO: What, besides people, do you miss most from home?
MH: Without a doubt, what I miss the most is authentic Mexican food. In California, I am spoiled from having access to awesome Mexican food 24/7 and, sadly, the Mexican restaurants I’ve found in Bogotá just aren’t up to par. Colombians generally dislike spicy food, which is probably my biggest gripe with this country. Oh, and I also miss my golden retriever, Gerico. I am a major dog lover and it has been tough being away from my dog for so long. Granted, there are tons of stray dogs living in my neighborhood, but it’s generally a bad idea to try to pet them.
LCO: In one of your latest blog posts, you talked about the two sides of Bogotá. Describe the atmosphere of the Bogotá where you live and work.
MH: Bogotá is like an iceberg—10% of the population lives comfortably above the water line while 90% of the population is drowning in socioeconomic desperation. Unfortunately, many of those in the top 10% hold contempt for the poor and do little or nothing to help them. I work in the Juan Rey barrio in southern Bogotá, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. The area is infested with youth gangs and legitimate economic opportunities are almost non-existent. Since the barrio is at the top of a steep mountain, the police don’t like to go there, adding to the area’s sense of abandonment. Many of the buildings are crumbling and a lot of the roads aren’t even paved—it’s difficult to believe the barrio is part of the same city that also contains such posh areas as Zona Rosa and Parque 93.
LCO: What are your thoughts on Colombian cuisine?
MH: I love Colombian food—I could eat arepas and empanadas all day. In fact, the food is not much different than a typical dish in the United States—meat, rice, potatoes and vegetables. That being said, I do wish Colombian food was spicier, like Mexican food. I usually dump hot sauce on the food here to make it more interesting.
LCO: What’s the most challenging situation you’ve faced so far in Colombia and how did you cope?
MH: The most challenging situation I’ve faced in Colombia so far is the ongoing struggle of building a life here. Living in a big city like Bogotá is akin to living in a major American city like New York and it’s been difficult making local friends. Being a foreigner can often be lonely because you are always the outsider. I have dealt with this by making every effort to get out and meet new people, while also becoming more self-sufficient. It will take time, but I know it will eventually pay off.
LCO: More people are considering Colombia as a travel destination. What advice do you have for them?
MH: My biggest piece of advice for those considering visiting Colombia is not to let the country’s bad reputation prevent you from coming. Although Mexico has disintegrated into a virtual warzone, Americans continue to flock there in droves for vacation. Colombia is a lot safer than Mexico and you will be missing out if you let an outdated reputation scare you from coming. That said, Colombia still has a problem with street crime and foreigners are usually the prime targets, usually because they make the most mistakes. When you come here, use your brain and you shouldn’t have any problems. Also, don’t come here just to buy cheap drugs—I have encountered a lot of Americans and Europeans who come here for that sole purpose and it makes me sick. Not only do you make Americans look bad, but you are putting yourself in great danger getting involved with drugs here—the anti-drug laws are a lot harsher here than they are in the United States. Colombia has a lot more to offer travelers than drugs and you will be missing out if you aren’t willing to embrace it.
LCO: Best way to spend your free time in Bogotá?
MH: My favorite thing to do in Bogotá is to enjoy its nightlife. Although I have yet to experience all this city has to offer, I have had fun going to bars and clubs in Zona Rosa, Parque 93, Galerias and the Centro. It’s interesting to see that the nightlife here focuses more on dancing than drinking (unlike in the U.S.). It’s been a lot of fun learning how to dance Latin styles like salsa—it’s a refreshing break from the hip hop spasmodic dancing we favor in the states.
LCO: What has been your most memorable moment in Colombia so far?
MH: My most memorable moment in Colombia so far was the first day I visited my school, Nueva Esperanza. The second I entered the courtyard, the students went crazy and swarmed me like I was some kind of celebrity. At 6’3’’, I was probably the tallest person they had ever seen and was definitely the first American. It was a remarkable feeling knowing that my mere presence could create such joy in so many children. It washed away any fears I had about working in a potentially dangerous area and it made me feel like everything I was risking was worth it.
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