“Here I am, back in Mecca. I am still traveling, trying to broaden my mind, for I’ve seen too much of the damage narrow-mindedness can make of things, and when I return home to America, I will devote what energies I have to repairing the damage.” Malcolm X
There was a common response when I told people at home that I was going to live in Colombia. They looked a bit surprised, repeated the word “Colombia?” and wished me luck.
There has been a common response to my presence amongst the Colombians that I have met here. They look me in the eye, lean in, and ask “Why Colombia?”
Both parties are aware of the reputation that Colombia holds. My friends from home thought I was a mentalist, an adrenaline junkie looking for some crazy adventure, running off into the depths of a dangerous country like a wannabe Zoe Saldana (pero un poco más gordita). Colombians are very aware of how their country is perceived in the rest of the world and therefore half of them agree that I am probably mentally unstable, having heard all of the advice and coming to live here anyway. The other half however, are gagging to know exactly what made me want to come over.
Good question. I have yet to formulate a generic answer to respond to that question, but there are a couple of things that spring to mind. Firstly, let’s put things into context. I study Spanish and Philosophy at university so I had to spend a year abroad as part of my degree. Why not Spain? Well because at 18 I went to live in a Haitian batey in the Dominican Republic for a year, so Spain struck me as a step backwards in terms of challenging myself. So why Colombia? Well apart from the obvious (Shakira), I have to thank my brother from another mother, Gio Manuel, for introducing me to an amazing Colombian family in Italy last year. We had a really sick time and I was so warmly welcomed that I could feel my love-affair with Colombia beginning, right in Pavia. Apart from this family, it was the mixture of races, the interesting history and the curiosity which pushed me to choose Colombia.
From the get-go I swept away my preconceptions about Colombia, and decided to let it pull me along and open itself to me with time. One thing I quickly realized is how much Colombians hate the drug dealing image they have attained thanks to the legend that is Pablo Escobar. I have students in my conversation class launch into fuck off massive rants about how upsetting it is to go the States and be asked everyday if they take/deal/traffic drugs. To be honest, as far as students go, Leeds strikes me as worse than Bogota in terms of recreational drug taking. Most people who are studying seem to steer well clear of drugs, although a lot of them have come across cocaine and other drugs at parties or example. At a salsa festival in the Centre the other day there were various groups of people puffing away on bongs right in the middle of the plaza, even with the heavy police presence. However they were not students, and it strikes me that here, drugs certainly don’t have the same “cool status” that is attributed to coke back home. That is probably because people here can see the damaging affects that narco-trafficking has had on the country as a whole.
Apart from the obvious issue of drugs, which I will no doubt write about again at a later date, there have been a number of other things that I have had to open my mind to.
This week in my conversation class I decided to cover the topic of age-gap relationships. It is not unusual to see a sexy mamacita in her twenties strapped up to a pot-bellied balding man in the bars around town. It is difficult for me not to stare and even harder to get the damaging image of them getting jiggy out of my head.
I chose to cover the topic because I figured that it would provoke a response and get people talking. Plus, I wanted to get the inside perspective on the concept. There was an interesting response in the group. Whilst there was a girl who seemed to have learned something about feminism in her life, who firmly opposed the idea of young girls being with older guys, the general consensus was that it wasn’t really an issue. This being despite the fact that it was universally agreed that such relationship were probably more to do with economics than love. Cue open-minded moment.
It is a cultural difference and I respect that, I don’t know the lives that these women lead, and I am in no position to judge. I am merely an observer, taking the information from what I see, processing it, and applying it to myself in a way that will make me a better version of me.
Maya Angelou has helped me to achieve a certain level of open mindedness, with her logical words of wisdom:
“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain”.
This advice has proven indispensable in certain moments of potential stress, such as waiting for hours for my identification papers to be sorted (they love lengthy bureaucracy over here) struggling to get onto the bus for work (it makes the rush hour jubilee line look like an organized conveyor belt at YO! Sushi), and having to return to the bank on 4 different occasions because they keep telling you to bring the wrong documents. Oh, not forgetting that I have been here nearly six weeks and I have yet to received my first pay (the porridge and popcorn diet is back in action). Can’t change it, don’t complain, positive thoughts. And you what? It really hasn’t been that difficult at all.
The hardest things to deal with are the flashes of racism, the issues with the displaced people, and the general preconception that Europeans go around with their legs wide open. But in all honestly, I had adopted a mini forcefield around me that protects me from taking on the negative energy and getting down. The kinds of things that are permitted to enter the forcefield are :
– Ariqupe – Colombia’s trademark answer to caramel. It goes on ice cream, in cakes and in my tummy.
– The experience of teaching in a prestigious institution – I work in a pretty swish university and I feel blessed each day for the working environment and the students I teach.
– Salsa steps – I take classes, twice a week, with the dream of one day being able to wear one of the snazzy costumes with sparkles and shit…
– The warmth of the people. Yeah yeah, don’t all vom at once, I’m only saying it because it’s true! I have already made some amazing Colombian friends (and I mustn’t forget the Mexicanas…)
I can see everything that is going on around me, and I write in down in my head, but I make sure that I absorb the positive parts. Keeping an open mind. One of the best things to help me keep an open mind has been studying philosophy. Once you have studied philosophy, you realize that you can never have the only answer, and there is always a counter argument, to anything that you might think is solid. You think you know how to explain what morals are, philosophy can show you the pieces you missed and how you are wrong. You think you can switch teams and adopt the right answer, philosophy is two steps ahead and will push you back to the starting point. This is infuriating yet enlightening at the same time. It is through understanding that there is not really any such thing as “being right”, that you learn to have an open mind/heart/ears.
That said, sometimes I can feel a little lost in the abyss of philosophy, and that is where faith is essential. Having faith makes me feel less scared to close my eyes and jump, because it lets me know that there are limits. I wont drop forever, I will land somewhere. There are some boundaries, some rules, some guidelines that can help me to follow some kind of path. I have taken to having an open mind here, and I say yes to just about everything, excluding men, drugs, lunch dates with students, pork, other meat, alcohol and people asking for directions in the street.
I’m working on the kind of person I am and getting to know what I need to do in order to be productive, happy and better as a person, and I guess having and open mind and faith are two things that I can’t be without.
Thanks for reading, I hope you liked it and that wherever you are and whoever you are you are feeling the positive viiibezzz. One love ❤