June 11, 2009

Loving Colombia


Here’s a letter chock full of generalities and stereotypes. If you are from Ecuador or Colombia and unhappy with my words… Remember, this is my experience, and it is worth respect.

I sit in a sweaty bedroom in Cali, Colombia. Behind me on the bed and in a plastic chair sit two aficionados, or fanatics, of futból. Today’s game is between Colombia and Argentina, and people of both nationalities are present.

I’ve never seen such zealots for a sport before. No American fan of football, basketball, baseball, or any other pasttime can possibly compare with the immense passion of latinos with their soccer. If their team loses, they will literally be depressed for several days following the game.

In the mean time, I’m ready to write. I could care less about the game, and cannot possibly comprehend the rationality of watching a few hours of people running back-forth-back-forth-back-forth for only a goal or two. Uuuuf.

Cali: Connotation from my American perspective: Ridiculously dangerous. Dirty. The people are untrustworthy. You may be kidnapped at any time and held for a meater $5,000, the FARC knowing that any American family can come up with this cash. The place is filled with slimy 45 year olds wearing white Panama hats and cream linnen outfits and smoking big stogies. And they always have a young, semi-nude woman on their arm.

Cali: Reality from my life experience: Ridiculously friendly. Impeccably clean. The people are trustworthy. If you stay on the main highways, it is unimaginable to think you may be kidnapped. And the people are normal. Relaxed. All appear to be living a normal, content life. They are more than helpful at any time for any reason.

I am absolutely shocked.

To be frank, I enjoy the Colombian culture and country much more than Ecuador. I’ve found Ecuador to constantly reek of the rotting garbage in all the streets and sidewalks. The people who are not already your friends tend to be completely disinterested in helping. Those who work in retail or restaurants are flat out rude. I intentionally look for merchants who are smiling to patronize their business. And, thank god, I finally have a break from the continuous car alarms and incessant honking in the majority of Ecuadorian cities and towns.

Another favorite: Cali is smattered with green. Grass strips dividing traffic lanes are littered with mature, tall palm trees. Parks are found every few blocks. Flowers are not so common, but… At least it is not a city of cement as is Manta.

And what have I found here in Colombia?

Melt-in-your-mouth bananas.

Safety. I feel immeasurably more safe here than in Ecuador. And the obvious irony is laughable. I’m here in Cali, Colombia, supposedly filled with machine guns and people wanting to kidnap me… But instead I am with amicable people going about their lives in peace. Unlike Ecuador, they offer eye contact and cheerful greetings. I am slowly learning that if someone appears to want to help me with directions, they have no intent to rob me (unlike several experiences in Ecuador.)

Remember when I wrote to say that I was headed to Colombia? And that surely not much worse could be happening there than all the murders and attempted murders that happened in the two weeks prior to my writing the post? Three days later I was in the touristic center of Quito at night with a tall male and we were jumped and robbed at knife-point. I’ve never come close to urinating on myself before this moment. And now every time I see someone running, and even more when they are running toward me, I immediately freeze and freak out. I was robbed not just of my cell phone and cash, but of some sort of innocence and naivety of my false sense of safety.

Gigantic, modern malls. I have never seen such large malls in my life. The stark disparity between the weeny malls of Salem and the large, “modern” malls of Portland is comprable to the class of malls in Portland in relation to those in Cali. Cali has malls like the largest found in Houston, but on speed! Just to walk in front of each store front takes a sizable amount of time. It was lovely to see something stylish, trendy, and familiar for the first time in six months.

And I think I like Cali so much because of this – familiarity. People are more logical. They appear to be more likely to follow through on their commitments. They dress in front of the mirror, and the women do not show almost all of their breasts (thank god. I find this revolting.) There is green. Style. And clear intent to be helpful and genuinely cordial.

I pause in my writing to head to the back yard. I sit in a big black hammock under a mango and palm tree. I read "The World's Greatest Salesman," a gift from Sten. He is one of my favorite CouchSurfing members ever. And he loves chocolate ice cream and is from Estonia. Beat that.

Reality: The FARC still kidnaps people. They still rob. But not on main roadways, which are heavily covered with military posts and trucks and soldiers holding massive machine guns. Don't head off the road and you'll be fine. And they could care less about travelers on buses - Reality is, they know the people with money are those who take planes, not buses. Those are the people they bother, because their families have money to pay. So I guess I'll take the bus anyhow!

I 'll write more later regarding how the FARC and other groups still do terrorize the people of Colombia... But, as many Colombians have said, there has been tremendous change in the last eight years, and they feel they can travel in peace. As do I.



  1. glad you are safe and happy. i got your letter about a week ago! loved it! miss you!


  2. It was a delight to write. Thank you SO much for sending me a photograph!!!