I’m still met with shocked faces and concern when I tell some people that I lived in Colombia for almost a year. They don’t want to know about the lush jungles, the beautiful beaches or the bustling cities, but about the drugs, violence and horrific reputation.
While Colombia is renowned for being one of the most dangerous countries in the world (cheers, Pablo) I can honestly say that if I hadn’t heard anything about it before coming, I would never have guessed at this reputation. Okay, maybe about the drugs.
Sitting outside Juan Valdez, scrolling through Facebook a few months ago, I nearly choked on my tinto frio to see that Insider Travel had named Colombia the most dangerous country in the world. In 2017.
To put this into context, that week I had been far more concerned about my friends back in the UK following the London Bridge terrorist attack, and for my brother in Afghanistan who’s camp had just been targeted by a suicide bomber, than I had been at any point for my own safety.
I’m not denying that there are still obvious safety concerns, but to paraphrase a girl who I wrote off as a massive douche on the back of this statement, it definitely didn’t feel like the most dangerous place I’d travelled to.
But this reputation almost put me off coming.
People who probably couldn’t even pinpoint Colombia on a map decided to wade into the debate, from concerned relatives to the waitress at my goodbye dinner. Informing me that Colombia was dangerous as if I had just made a snap decision to move there without knowing the first thing about the place. Which in retrospect is not entirely untrue.
Alone in my hotel room in Bogotá after almost 24 hours of travelling, I worked myself up into a frenzy. Looking at my little blue dot on Google maps I realised just how far away I was. I had never been this far away from home, and I had never been this completely alone. It struck me that I didn’t know a single person on the entire continent. As irrelevant and purely symbolic as the fact was, it made me feel completely lost. Metaphorically and literally. In my panic, I had managed to lose my hotel room twice and I froze whenever anyone spoke Spanish to me. I was well out of my comfort zone.
Sometimes, when I’m outside my comfort zone I find myself questioning my life choices. Wondering why I can’t just be happy to get a “normal” job and settle down. Have stable friendships and relationships. And a dog. (Mostly the dog.)
I know deep down that this isn’t what I want, but when I’m weak from jet-lag and feeling disorientated, this voice takes advantage of my lowered defences. And it had particularly strong opinions on Colombia, echoing my aunt’s reaction to the move “How can you have read so many books and still be so stupid?”
I cried, did some yoga, gave myself a pep-talk and dragged myself out. Arriving at the hotel I had been a bit freaked out that I had to give my booking confirmation before would even open the gates to my cab, so I was relieved that in the light of day I could walk freely in and out of the hotel. We weren’t in complete lockdown.
Walking down the huge highways of Bogotá I was struck by how normal everything was. Urban. Modern. Clean. I made my way to Park 93, stealing glances at Google Maps, wary not to let anyone see my phone. When I reached the park I started to laugh at myself. People lounging on picnic mats had smartphones and tablets in full view, using the park’s free wifi. A toddler was running around after a puppy. I started to chill out a bit.
Although nothing I saw made me feel unsafe in Bogotá, people continued to freak me out with their stories. A Colombian woman warned me not to go anywhere alone, not to travel after dark, and I later found out that one of her sons had been killed.
In training, we were given talks on safety and warned about a substance that gangs use to rob you. Scopolamine, or “Devil’s breath” can be blown into your face, and leave you in a zombie-like state where you have no free will (but don’t look wildly out of control) Kind of like the imperius curse, except you can also die.
We were warned about the paseo millenario, which is nowhere near as fun as it sounds and involves taxi drivers kidnapping you for 24 hours where they drag you around atms until they have drained your bank account. This didn’t pose a massive threat to me considering I had already done most of the work for them, but the sexual assault side of it was definitely a worry.
In my first few weeks in Colombia, I took all the official advice. I never got into an unbooked taxi. I even to booked taxis even to travel a few blocks home in the centre of town after dark. I didn’t carry cash. I kept my hand glued to whichever pocket my phone was in.
I soon relaxed. The centre of Santa Marta became familiar, I grew to recognise the local crackheads and knew which places to avoid. I walked home alone down the main, well-lit streets. But I walked quickly and confidently and developed a bit of a “fucking try it” attitude. Street harassment was definitely more of an issue for me than the threat of actual crime.
A few of my friends were mugged, and their stories were pretty sobering. (guns, knives, punches to the face) and I warned myself not to slip into a false sense of security.
When my mum came to visit I tried to show her that Colombia really wasn’t unsafe. I planned to show her how normal my life was in Santa Marta but Santa Marta didn’t really play ball. The rainy season hit and the streets flooded. There were three men passed out in the doorway to my flat. (instead of the usual one) Her bright blonde hair meant that we were followed and hassled even more than I was used to. I had booked to take her to Cartagena for the weekend and wondered if I should tell her about the group message from my coordinator warning us not to travel to Cartagena because of a terrorist attack. (false alarm, they turned out to be two unrelated explosions)
Sometimes random things would remind me that I was in a famously “dangerous” country. One day I was teaching a class on camping and outdoor activities, and I asked my students about the potential dangers of going camping. Expecting them to suggest insects, snakes or the odd twisted ankle I was shocked when the first reaction was “you could get kidnapped” closely followed by fears of rape.
Obviously, I know that Colombia’s peace process is still in a delicate phase, but kidnappings are down 92% since 2000. There are areas where you really shouldn’t go, and even in controlled “safe” areas, horrendous things can happen. But you can’t live in a country and constantly be afraid.
By the time I visited Medellín, I felt completely at ease in Colombia. I travelled alone from Choco, the remote north-west of Colombia bordering Panama, and wandered around the zona-rosa in my favourite aimless, directionless and carefree way.
On the Medellín walking tour, I was brought back down to earth. While caution had become a habit, my paranoia and constant fear of being attacked had disappeared. The guide kind of messed with this. He made us huddle together to take photos, and although the tour ended in a busy park, he made sure that we all left in groups, and warned us not to come back at night.
The tour guide wasn’t about scaremongering though, he was overwhelmingly positive about Medellín’s present situation and future, but also very open and honest about the past, in a country which in my experience tends to gloss over painful chapters. Somewhat understandably.
Medellín’s Museum of Memory, for example, has some beautifully touching exhibitions but deals with the conflict without specifically mentioning names or events. The artist Botero took a stand against this famous collective amnesia by opposing the removal of his statue of the bird from the Plaza San Antonio where it was blown up, killing 23 people during a concert. Instead, the artist insisted on installing the replacement next to it. The statues are now known as the Pajaros de Paz (birds of peace) and it seems symbolic that Botero built the new statue bigger and more robust. There’s a phoenix analogy in there somewhere.
Standing next to the statue was one of those “standing on the edge of a cliff” moments. Seeing up close how a bomb can rip through bronze like it’s tin-foil makes you realise how fucked you would be. And how fucked people can be. Watching Narcos, and even the news, you become desensitized to the scale of the violence, but standing on the spot brought it crudely to life. Imagining the lives that were torn apart, the ripple effect of such a random, brutal and ultimately pointless act of violence.
The following day I took a free graffiti tour of the infamous Comuna 13. Learning about the way the barrio has been regenerated, how street art and hip-hop (and some big-arse escalators) have changed the face of one of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods made me frustrated that people still see Colombia as a country plagued by drug crime, instead of a country striving to re-invent itself.
By the time I visited Bogotá for the second time, a few days before flying home, I wouldn’t have recognised the girl cowering in her hotel room ten months earlier. Rushing around the city and hopping in taxis by myself, I already felt like I was back in Europe. After a hipster brunch, I headed to a shopping centre and was surprised to be stopped by a guard with a sniffer dog. (a dog with a job!!!) It wasn’t until I tried to use the second-floor bathroom that I realised that this was the shopping centre where a French girl had been killed in an explosion a few weeks earlier.
It’s a strange feeling, but it’s a feeling that is becoming increasingly common in Europe these days. Last year 22 people were killed in a concert in Manchester, at a venue that is home to some the best memories of my teenage years. I’m not saying that the security situation in the UK is comparable because my experience in Colombia taught me how insanely privileged we are to grow up in such relative safety. The point I’m trying to make is that there are incredibly shit people who do incredibly shit things everywhere. While there are always risks, we should never allow our fear to stop us living life to the full.
Towards the end of my time in Colombia, I went to San Gil for the weekend by myself. During the 13-hour coach journey, I followed my little blue dot with excitement rather than fear. Standing outside a bus station in the middle of nowhere, looking up at the little upside down-crescent moon, I no longer felt lost and lonely, but elated by my freedom.