International Clarity: Colombia

International Clarity: Colombia (from Jonathon Rickords)

This week’s guest author: Jonathon Rickords


What do you think of when you hear “Colombia”?  That’s the country in South America, spelled with an “o”.
Most people think almost immediately of drugs. Does anything else come to mind?

Most people also remember that great coffee is made in Colombia and that the international pop star Shakira is from there.
And if you think about an image to go with the name, you probably think of a village with a few thatched roof huts and a dusty dirt road running through them.  Little brown kids are playing soccer in a nearby field and some old men with sombreros sit munching on burritos on a table next to the street.
We tend to think of Colombia as being a hot, sweaty place filled with poverty, drugs, disease, and danger. To be fair, poor living conditions, crime, and drug use are prevalent in any country.  You could see it in Colombia, or any major city in the US.
I’m not going to say that Colombia isn’t exactly what you imagined, because there are places like that, but that’s not the whole story.  I want to make sure we try to realize that there are indeed multiple stories in Colombia and we could never learn about it all within a blog or within many years of living there.  What really counts is to be flexible when we think of foreign countries and to always try to learn more.  Colombians have a different culture from us, but we are more alike than unalike.  Let me illustrate with a true story.
An elderly women informs me that she likes Colombian food very much and that it is very healthy.  I agree with her politely, since she is the one cooking.
“Oh, I could never live in the United States,” she says.
Why not?” I ask.
“No, I could never live on hamburgers and eat them all day like you do, my dear.”
“Oh no, we do not eat only hamburgers, we also… ”
“Yes, I know you eat canned food sometimes too,” she cuts me off. “Nobody can eat one thing all the time.  But I could never eat just hamburgers and canned food my whole life like you folks do.”
At this point I try to help her understand that we also eat other things.  I, personally, like eating vegetables from my grandparent’s garden, fresh fruit, and salads (an onion and tomato sliced and mixed together is a salad in Colombia, so I really did miss salads very much).  I tried to tell her that fast food was common, but was definitely not our main source of nutrition.
“No, I think you’re wrong. You are not telling the truth” she says, “I know what I said is true, I saw it on TV.”
This story happened many times during my stay in that country.  However, when I got back to the states, people would inform me that Colombians are a lot like burrito-loving Mexicans and that most of them are addicted to drugs.  I would tell them this was not true, but some would insist I was mistaken, after all, they saw a very informative documentary on the National Geographic channel that told them so.
So we are more alike than you might think. We all simplify.  We generalize and have stereotypes because we’re human and its easy. Please, if you learn anything from this, just remember to always try to learn something more about a country than a simple stereotype.  Try to keep in mind the many story ideas Kyle put on this blog.
Truth be told, Colombia does produce a lot of drugs.  Some very remote parts of the jungle are still controlled by the FARCand other para-military groups.  However, the drug rate has gone down at an incredible rate in the past decade.  Car bombs and guerrilla fighters are not nearly as prevalent as the news would have you believe, and in my two years there I didn’t see either.  Don’t get me wrong.  If you’re looking for trouble you can go and find it, whether in New York or Bogota.
Also, Colombians are not Mexicans, they are very different.  They do not eat burritos and tacos, but if that’s what you want to eat there are a few Mexican restaurants in the bigger cities that will serve them to you.  The Colombian accent is also very different, being (debatably) the clearest accent in the Spanish-speaking world.
And just to be clear, Colombia is on the Andes Mountains so much of the country is at a high elevation, especially the capital: Bogota. It’s a mild climate, not cold or hot, but also very rainy.  It looks nothing like that opening scene from Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Because of the elevation, cities can be very hot in low valleys or very cold when they are high in the mountains.
That said, Colombians have their own misconceptions about us as well.  They think we are more close-knit and unified, culturally and politically, than we feel across the country.  The food issue I already described was another big issue.
So there you go.  Please don’t use this as doctrine for how all Colombians act and feel.  I only hope that this will help to illustrate that every place has many different stories that we should try to understand in order to get a better picture of the real world around us.



From Kyle again:

If you have experience in both the U.S. and another country (for at least 3 months in each spot) and would like to write a post, email me at and I can send you more information.  Thanks!

Keep seeking truth.

You may also be interested in:
International Clarity: Mexico (from Sear Rodriguez)
International Clarity: Guatemala (from Mariana Rodriguez)
International Clarity: Peru (from Hannah Cabrera)

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