Twenty-three days. 552 hours. A little more than three weeks to embark on a life-changing experience that I will undoubtedly remember for the rest of my life. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the hundreds that I took on this journey cannot be done justice in so brief a snapshot of my time abroad. Let me share with you my story of Colombia.
Since arriving at Moravian College over two years ago, life has catapulted me forward at a torrid pace, taking me in countless new directions that I never could’ve foreseen. This May Term landed me in South America, over 2,000 miles from home, in a distant land that I knew next to nothing about. My friends and family were all met with trepidations as I mentioned the possibility of traveling to a country unfortunately most well known for the recent history of violence and drugs. What I would discover while in Colombia was far from anyone’s expectations or predispositions about what this country had to offer.
From the time I landed in the capital city of Bogotá until the time I departed from the port of Cartagena, I fell in love with the country of Colombia. Not a second or third kind of love, an older love, where past experiences and heartbreak have molded the lens through which one approaches the kinds of feelings love elicits, but rather I experienced a truly deep, innocent, youthful and unbounded love that could be seen in the glimmer of my eyes and felt in the flash of my smile as we explored this new world. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion at first, as I marveled at all the new sights, sounds and smells that surrounded me and enticed my senses from the moment I stepped off of the plane. Although I would describe the three weeks collectively as a blur (your favorite movie being played at ten times normal speed), the first five days felt more like five months. The middle weeks passed by in the blink of an eye as we were in a state of fervid motion riding buses, taxis, metros and airlines alike, transitioning between rural and metropolitan areas as quickly as you could catch your breath from the last incredible stop. By the final leg of the trip, these long days turned into much longer nights as I savored the last tastes of my time in such a breathtaking country.
One of the most unique aspects of this trip overall was that guides and locals alike were simply stunned to find that a group of American college students genuinely wanted to learn about the political and cultural history of Colombia. Since the country is still so stigmatized on the international scale by its violent past, fewer than a handful of American universities has ever run a program for students to go abroad to Colombia, and even then, no program was quite like ours. All of our guides, the indigenous people we met, and urban and rural citizens of Colombia alike, expressed a humble gratitude and immense appreciation for our interest and participation in this academic endeavor. They recognized that now, as we head back to our lives in the United States, not as tourists, but as true explorers, we can serve as global ambassadors to aid in breaking the negative stereotypes that are holding back so many people from experiencing such a truly remarkable place.
Our guided tours, assigned readings, and experiential learning focused in part on how the geographical and cultural divisions felt amongst the Colombian people allowed the violence and corruption to proliferate and poison the lives of the people. A people who are disconnected from their ancestry, from their communities, from their sacred traditions and even from their own fellow countrymen are incredibly vulnerable to the ill will of politicians, drug lords and multinational corporations. However, if this pattern of disconnect characterized years past, then a new paradigm shift has come in the form of social movements sweeping across the country improving community integration, recognitions of rights, and improvement in transportation infrastructure to provide better economic opportunities.
Neighborhoods where stray bullets used to claim the lives of the innocent now flourish with spectacular street art adorning the walls and houses, as citizens peacefully walk the streets with less fear. Important cultural sites once usurped in the name of finding gold, now are preserved and protected by the government to give back to the indigenous people what was once taken from them hundreds of years ago. A peace accord has been signed with the most prominent guerilla group, a cease-fire and demobilization plan have been implemented, and lands once wrongly taken are being returned. A system of cable-cars now stretches up the mountain sides reaching communities in a matter of minutes when before, poorly paved roads meant a commute of hours for the disadvantaged to get into the city to find work. Increasing investments in the high-tech industry are being made, coupled with programs to educate the next generation of entrepreneurs. Volunteer organizations strive to inform marginalized communities of their inalienable rights and offer legal services so their lands and culture will be encroached upon no more. A dual effort is being made to improve literacy in remote Afro-Colombian communities while ensuring that their dying language is preserved in written record for the remainder of history. This is only scratching the surface of the collective efforts being made today to make a better Colombia for all.
After this trip abroad, which included countless interactions with citizens along the way, if I had to personally choose a single word to encapsulate the most salient characteristic of the Colombian people, I would choose resilience. In the face of such unrelenting violence, political unrest, and desperation, it was strikingly apparent that not only did Colombia survive, but rather it flourished through the will of its people. Though scars of the violence run deep through the figurative body of the country, Colombians have found a way to remember the stories of the past while looking towards the future. Although far from perfect, with much work still to be done, the energy of the country, the resolution of its people and the hope for a better tomorrow far supersedes the pain left behind by the darker chapters of its history. If the eyes are truly the window to the soul, then the passion and pride I saw in the exuberant gazes of the Colombian people is representative of a collective heartbeat of a country bursting with life, love and hope.
Learning so much about a new culture in such a short amount of time would seem like an overwhelming task, but I was admittedly much more receptive to the history lessons taught on this trip than I ever have been in a classroom. I had personally never found history to be exciting or fascinating yet I found myself constantly asking questions, making mental notes and connecting the dots as I tried to absorb as much information as I could possible handle. The streets of Medellín, the coffee farms of Génova, and the markets of Bogotá became our classrooms as our guides weaved together the complex tapestry of Colombian society and history with the skill of indigenous artisans from Tuchín.
This experience constantly challenged me to become a better communicator and to be much more open-minded to the experiences and realities of others. Seeing things through another person’s vantage point is a difficult task to begin with, but it becomes especially difficult when you are a foreigner in a country where you only speak the native language at a conversational level, and essentially just completed a crash course history class, having no prior knowledge. I had never been abroad before this trip but now I understand why everyone has always told me to travel whenever I get the chance and as often as I can. If you are never in a situation where you can ask the right questions to the right people, then you will simply never learn someone’s true story. You will miss out on all of the incredible things and people a faraway land has to offer.
If being in Colombia made me fall in love, then leaving Colombia certainly felt like a heartbreak in its own regard. After experiencing such profound interactions, learning such a compelling history, and seeing so much of the natural beauty the country has to offer, it was indescribably difficult to finally let go. In the days that have passed from my departure I have shed many tears as I reflect upon my experiences and yearn to be back. However, these truly are not tears of sorrow, but rather tears of joy and thankfulness that my time in Colombia filled a deeply meaningful chapter in the pages of my book of life. This life changing experience shall continue to touch my existence and guide me in new directions as the horizons of my mind and soul have been expanded during my brief time there.
Though I’m unsure as to when our paths will cross again, Colombia, I fear not, for your stories and beauties shall ever be on my mind and praises be spoken by my lips.