A few weeks ago I went backpacking across Colombia with one of my friends. Upon telling my family (or rather, them finding out via facebook), the first response was not awesome! But- you’re going to die. Or get kidnapped. Or something like that.
I wish this could be localized to my family, but the general response was similar, with a few variations (“what are you going to do there for two whole weeks!” This is definitely the funnies response I got).
Well, I’m back. And alive. What did I learn?
First of all, that the Colombian country is absolutely amazing. I got to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Mountains, beaches, cities, and jungles. Often within thirty minutes of each other. Sometimes within 30 seconds.
Second, the Colombian people, in general, are extremely kind. Whenever I needed help I quickly found a local to guide me. When I wasn’t sure what something was or where to go, a local always took the time to explain. When I was drunk and about to go to an ATM in a rough area of town… I was lent some money (thanks Tortuga Hostel!). And if I wasn’t sure about what areas were safe, locals were happy to realistically explain where I could go and at what times. If a place was somewhat sketch, they let me know that to (I didn’t get a chance to visit the slums in Medellin, but locals absolutely encourage tourists to take a visit. If you’re there definitely give it a look and report back).
Third, the country is overall a very safe place. Although there are dangerous areas, as with any country, I never once felt unsafe. Colombia has made enormous strides since the 80s and 90s when it was one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Medellin, a city that was the most dangerous city in the world (ranked by homicides per capita), was recently ranked the most innovative city in the world by the WSJ and Citi, beating out NYC, Tel Aviv, and San Francisco. They’ve taken a dire situation and completely turned it around using “democratic architecture.” That is, as my tour guide Pablo explained, taking negative spaces and turning them into positive ones. Creating sculptures, adding light, building libraries, providing affordable and convenient transportation for the poorest. You can’t help but be taken by the enormous momentum of this city the moment you step foot in it.
Despite all of these amazing qualities of Colombia, you would never know any of this reading the news or talking to your friends and family. Cartagena, a northern city on the Carribean has been getting a lot of good PR, but you don’t hear much about the rest of the country. You simply hear about kidnappings by the FARC, or long gone stories of Pablo Escobar.
Speaking of which, the legacy of Pablo Escobar lives on in the country, and this legacy is one that has stuck with me the strongest. The 80’s and 90’s were a very difficult time in Colombia, largely driven by violence from the drug cartels, the primary culprit being the notorious Pablo Escobar. Demand for cocaine was so high that they would stop at nothing to make sure the drug was in constant production. Escobar famously offered Colombians $2,100 USD per policemen killed.
Where was this demand coming from? I’ll give you a second…. That’s right, the United States (with some interest from a few other countries). Not in Colombia. While Americans were busy stuffing their noses, innocent Colombians were caught in the middle of a bloody conflict largely funded by American consumers (and on the other side, the American government).
If you bring up Cocaine with Colombians, they get understandably upset. The association of cocaine and Colombia is one that they have been actively, and successfully, trying to destroy for years. Cocaine is such a small part of this countries history, but gets the lion share of international attention. This absolutely should not be the case.
So to wrap up- don’t let your fears get the best of you. There are amazing places to be explored if you’re not afraid to go there. Be smart, but be adventurous (go to Colombia).
And also, be aware of the effects of your own consumption on the lives of others. We hear time and time again about the impacts of globalization and global trade. On occasion tragedies like a factory collapse in Bangladesh make international news and get us thinking, but for the most part it’s convenient to ignore the harmful aspects of globalization. Not that I’m hyper aware of where the clothes I buy come from, or the impact of my quinoa purchases on local Bolivian farmers, but I won’t accept complete ignorance. The best way to do this is actually seeing the start of the supply chain, and making a decision for yourself. And why not use this is as a great excuse to travel…