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Living in… Colombia

by Bruce Haring

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Say “Colombia,” and what springs to mind?  The beaches, the women, the temperate climate, the warm and friendly people?

Or perhaps, are you thinking of the country’s portrayal in the popular culture?  Drug cartels, violence, neckties, fiery women who won’t back down, a place of seemingly unending chaos and conflict?

Colombia needs some good PR, and not because all of the chaos is the stuff of fantasy. The US Department of State issued a Colombia travel advisory for US citizens as of mid-April, warning that “violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural areas and parts of large cities.”

The report goes on to detail “terrorist and criminal activities,” including kidnapping (note – if you’re a US citizen and nabbed, “It is US policy not to make concessions to or strike deals with kidnappers,” according to the State Dept.

The only danger is not wanting to leave.

In other words, you’d better be independently wealthy — or have another bargaining chip handy—  if you want to keep your fingers and/or toes.

Okay, we’ll give State the benefit of the doubt. There can be problems for the unwary, particularly if you decide to drive rather than fly between cities in the country. But if you visited the US, would you stroll through Detroit after midnight?  Would you slowly drive through East St. Louis or North Philadelphia with your windows down and doors unlocked?

Of course not. So if you avoid the Colombian rural areas and generally exert caution, you’ll be fine. It’s called knowing the lay of the land, and in Colombia’s case, it means avoid making yourself a target by driving in rural areas or flaunting your wealth in the cities. The Colombian government even plays along with the media notions, advertising that “The only danger is not wanting to leave.”

Getting There and Getting It

No visa is required for US citizens who are staying up to 90 days, but you must have a passport valid for at least 90 days following your anticipated departure date.  There are visas required for business and official visits. Check with your local Colombian consulate for details on the best one for you. Just remember Spanish is the national language, so it’s a good idea to at least be fluent in a few phrases to toss around, since English isn’t widely spoken amongst the general population.

Bogota is the nation’s capital, boasting over seven million residents, followed by Medellin at tw0 million, Cali at just over 2.3 million, and Barranquilla at one million. It’s a thriving urban scene, filled with arts, science, great healthcare, and even better cuisine, the latter reflecting the various ethnic influences that have combined in Colombia into a rich tapestry.  It’s simple food, so try the sancocho de gallina (chicken soup with root vegetables) with some empanadas, tamales and arroz de lisa.

Wash it all down with some fine Colombian wine and rich Colombian coffee, pairing it some flan or sponge cake or bunuelos.

For those seeking to live there, expect things to be good and cheap.  A two-bedroom apartment in most locations would be about $300 a month in a middle-class neighborhood, while more exclusive digs would be closer to $800 per month. Electricity is pricey, but water is cheap.  Prices are generally 1/3 to 2/3 of US prices for most common daily items from supermarkets, clothing stores, and other locations. Great restaurant meals from local establishments are in the $5 range.  The good news is that most food is local — fast food places that are ubiquitous in the US are rare in Colombia, mainly because of the price differential. So eat like a native, and enjoy the savings and change of pace.

The Colombian women — ah, the Colombian women — aren’t all like spitfire Gloria Delgado-Pritchett on “Modern Family” (actress Sofia Vergara, to the uninitiated).  In fact, quite the opposite, as it’s man’s, man’s, man’s world in Colombia.  Acid attacks against women are a problem in the country. Although they have laws on the books encouraging women’s rights, the native culture is harder to change, and women are still laboring under the burden of “machista,” where violence, social marginalization, and exploitation of females are still rampant. Single mothers are common, because there are no child support laws for out-of-wedlock children.

All of which means that Colombian women are not yet part of the workforce in the way that they are in the US; they are more focused on being homemakers and adopting traditional roles. They also are more conservative when it comes to who they date. That’s all matter of taste, but in a country where males are expected to be freelancers rather than homebodies, it’s a definite advantage for those seeking a more family-oriented arrangement with honorable intentions. The gringo who lives in Colombia and appears well-off has a definite advantage.

And if you want to sample the milk without buying the cow, do what the US Secret Service did — visit some of the clubs and hook up without guilt with the working girls. There’s plenty of them to go around in a country where the wage can be $300-$500 for the regular jobs.

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