To help me settle into this unfamiliar spot on the globe, I invested in maps and tours. I studied the local lore, histories, and, most of all, geography.
So much is different from North America.
For you, Medellín might begin and end with Pablo Escobar, but that’s myopic. Give Medellín and yourself a break. Apply a wider lens that introduces context and culture.
My first insights into the heart and soul of Colombia were courtesy of David Bushnell’s “The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself.” This may be the only history of Colombia available in English, and, as it was published in 1993, it is aging.
Still, much of it reads as though it were written yesterday, and it is certainly describing the same country, with the same strengths and struggles, as today’s newspapers. Colombia faces unique challenges as a result of its distinct areas, climates, and physical barriers that must be crossed to travel among them. When you look closely at the geography of the place, it can seem a wonder that it has held together at all.
Medellín hosts one of the practical explanations for how Colombia has remained one country—the nationally owned Satena Airlines. Based at the local (downtown) Olaya Herrera Airport, Satena has as part of its mission the task of calling at widely separated cities throughout Colombia in an effort to improve internal communications and transport. Profit is not the first priority.
It is a quality system, nevertheless, with modern planes and excellent facilities… except at Bogotá, where it is well hidden but still manages to serve as the hub to reach such distant places as San Andrés Island well out in the Caribbean.
First impressions do linger. Although it’s almost four years later now, I can still feel the shock of my first impressions of Medellín. One was the volume and recklessness of traffic here.
I knew from prior exposure to Latin American cities that this would be likely, but in Medellín it can be particularly striking for how it contrasts with the natural beauty of the setting. Medellín is a very green city that is also increasingly hustling and bustling. I haven’t seen this many construction cranes at work since Berlin after the wall came down.
Yes, this contrast raises the prospect of air quality problems, and there is pollution, especially in valley low spots. But, unlike many cities, Medellín has a firm and enforced program in place that effectively alternates car usage at key times of the week, and people abide by it, even at considerable inconvenience.
I think this behavior supports my main point: Colombians have to be among the world’s kindest and most generous people. Let me give an example from my own experience…
I am in my late 80s, I walk with a cane, and my appearance screams “old gringo.”
One day I was standing at a busy intersection while a torrent of motorcycles flashed by, followed by a steady stream of cars and trucks. I was seriously reviewing my options when a young woman stopped her car, jumped out, stopped the rest of the traffic, and proceeded to lead me across the street.
Horns honked in her honor and in greeting to me. I waved my cane in appreciation, and, after I’d been helped across, normal chaos resumed in the street.
This was not an isolated example. Old age or a cane will get you special places or service everywhere in this town, and I can tell you from my own experience that the combination is dynamite.
But even old geezers have to try to help ourselves, particularly us foreigners. We are, after all, guests in some other folks’ country. The best way I know is to make a real effort to learn Spanish and to use it whenever possible. It doesn’t have to be an expensive or academic exercise, unless that’s your style. You can pick up key words by asking or listening well, which is also a sign of respect. You will soon enough begin to recognize quirks of Colombian culture and practice that will make your life here more comfortable and interesting.
For example, don’t expect regular timeliness or complete dependability. They are just not part of everyday life, no matter how good your friendship may be with an individual. Remember the Colombian mantra: Tranquilo…
Most Colombians have a few words of English, and many have lived for some time in the United States, but that does not necessarily mean they have learned English or that English will work in an emergency. How you communicate will have to be worked out individually.
One moment that is truly dangerous is when you and your new Colombian friend have discovered that you share a few words of English and a few words of Spanish, and you try to make arrangements with your new shared skills. Unrecognized misunderstandings can lead to serious embarrassments or missed connections. Try a six-day trip with no clothes or overnight equipment. A costly language lesson.
This is only to say that the single absolutely indispensable ingredient of international travel and certainly of a move to a new country is a highly developed and flexible sense of humor.
So armed, you will win every time.
This article was first published in April 2018 and has been recently updated.