Impressions from Colombia

Impressions from Colombia

I came back from Colombia in June 2017 and loved it so much I have written an article on my impressions from this amazing country. Colombia is becoming a digital nomad destination, mainly (and only) due to the popularity of Medellin, one of the world’s top trending digital nomad destinations. The article was published in Spanish in Colombia’s biggest Magazine (Semana) and received much more attention than expected (or wanted) on social media. I am publishing it in English as it is a good read for digital nomad and long-term travelers who are living in Colombia, or planning to get there. The bottom line of it all is that Colombia is a spectacular country going through a positive transition and should not be missed. Enjoy!

I have just left Colombia after a 6 month visit and I already miss it. My name is Eli David, and since 2010 I have lived a nomadic lifestyle, switching between countries every 2 months. I am an economist and accountant originally from Israel who decided that it is better to see the world rather than stay in the same location. To date, I have lived in more than 60 countries and publish articles about the nomadic lifestyle at BecomeNomad.

Staying in Colombia for 6 months was not planned, but it was hard to leave. Most of my time was spent in Medellin, Bogota, Pasto, and Bucaramanga while making weekend trips to places close to those cities. For this article, it would have been easy to focus on the positive aspects of life in Colombia, mainly its people and nature. However, I think it would be more beneficial for you if I share the main things that are either missing or should be improved in Colombia, while focusing on social, economic, and environmental aspects which affect the country. It should be noted that although I have a background in economics and the ability to compare my experiences here to dozens of other countries where I lived, I am not a local who lives the “Colombian reality,” so my apologies in advance if I get things wrong or offend you.

To sum up this extensive article, there is one root infection that is the reason for most of Colombia’s problems. It will probably not surprise you that this infection is corruption. As I will explain later, I have tried to understand why corruption is so prevalent here, and concluded that it is a cause of something much deeper. Colombia suffers from a severe lack of solidarity which directly causes and amplifies corruption. So let’s start going deeper.

I am now staying in Madrid, Spain, and a few days here reminded me of the main reason why I would not stay in Colombia for an extended period. My Colombian friends, most of your cities are heavily polluted, and it seems that most of you are not aware of how dire your situation is. Pollution is mainly the result of old cars and buses that are still allowed to be on the road throwing fumes of smoke at pedestrians.

This is a life/death issue. Everyone living in a Colombian city is constantly breathing smoke, which will result in you and family members living less and suffer from more health complications. Madrid and other European cities have millions of habitants, but the air is clean. In Colombia’s case, the government is not putting effort into taking polluted cars and factories off the street, because there is not enough pressure from the public to make these kinds of tough decisions.

The “Pico y Placa” initiative is a nice start, but it’s an easy solution that doesn’t tackle the core of the problem: the polluters and severe lack of infrastructure. Just as cancer cannot be healed with aspirin and pain killers, your “Trancones” will only get worse. When I first arrived to Bogota in 2007, my friends told me about plans to build a metro. What happened?

For a country with the nicest people on the planet, I never understood why it is so difficult to be a pedestrian in Colombia. When I arrived in Spain after 6 months in Colombia, I didn’t cross the street even when cars stopped for me in zebra lines because I couldn’t believe they were waiting for me. Your government has worse problems to deal with than pedestrian rights, so my only request from you, my fellow Colombians with a car, is to decide that from now on you will let people safely cross the street when you see them waiting in Zebra lines.

Crossing the street isn’t easy, but traveling between Colombian cities is even more difficult. True, the majestic Andes make land trips difficult, but your infrastructure is truly horrible. After traveling in a bus between Pasto, Bogota, Medellin, Bucaramanga, Cucuta, and the Caribbean cost, I can honestly say that your narrow roads are planned inefficiently, and make land travel unnecessarily long. Flights have become the norm for traveling in Colombia, which is unfortunate. I can report from my travels that the guerilla is gone, and traveling by public transport or a car is safe. By doing that and avoiding planes, you will get to know how beautiful Colombia is, since the most majestic places are not found in cities. Flights create pollution, noise, and delay the growth and integration of smaller towns that are currently not visited by Colombians. Your neighbor country Ecuador is by no means more successful than you, yet they have excellent roads and infrastructure. Someone robbed you for dozens of years, it is time to make sure this robbery end so you can heavily invest in Colombia’s infrastructure and future.

Let’s talk about your cities and parks. And yes, I am also talking to you my beloved Bucaramanga, “La ciudad de los parques”. Your cities are not fun to walk at all. Other than the pollution, you have very few parks which keep on disappearing every time a real estate project pays enough to get a permit to destroy one more of your city’s green lungs. The sidewalks are extremely narrow, forcing people into the street to mix with cars and motorcycles. Here is the sad news: it is not only your local politicians stealing the public space away from you, it’s also ordinary Colombians just like you who seem to have given up on the system to grab whatever public space is available close to their homes.

I suggest you start actively defending your parks and nature. Go protest each time a park is about to disappear, make sure that the roads being built between your cities are planned without corruption and special interests, and think carefully  about long term environmental implications. Defend your amazing nature; you are truly blessed with spectacular mountains, beaches, plants, and animals unlike any other country, and once it is gone you can never restore it. The easiest way to start protecting your nature is changing your own habits. The situation with plastic bags in Colombia is beyond absurd. In Europe, plastic bags are paid for, and people usually avoid them. In Colombia, you get one with anything you buy. Whenever someone is offering a plastic bag, decline and say you care about the environment. If your government is too busy to push for positive change, you as the people will have to set the norms for your government to follow. Don’t wait for them.

Obesity and diabetes are becoming incredibly frequent all over the world, and one of the things related to those diseases is the food we eat. Colombia made me fat. Don’t get me wrong, Colombian food is tasty and I miss my Arepas and Banuelos, but it is hard to find a salad or non-fried food. I can only recommend changing the menu to protect yourself and your families. I love it that only in Colombia can you get hot chocolate with your breakfast as an adult, but this coca cola addiction needs to stop. Switch to water please.

Colombia has the friendliest people I have ever had the privilege to meet during my travels.  Unlike in many other parts of South America, Colombians are not only friendly but also generally do not take advantage of tourists, and instead take care of them. On a few occasions, Colombians gave me discounts or services for free just so I would have a good impression of their country (Special thanks to Dr. Vicente Unigarro from Clinica Unigarro in Pasto, you are a great man!). During my stay here, 2 of my hostels became a place where I felt I had a family. Nariño is my favorite Colombian region, and Antoni and Monica in Hostel Bohemia in Pasto are the main reason for that, in addition to the spectacular Green Laguna nearby. My other Colombian family in hostal Rural Chitota near Bucaramanga, run by the legendary Enrique and Diana, showed me how great life is when you live in a Colombian farm. However, being so friendly has some disadvantages as well. In Israel people complain about everything that doesn’t work or make sense, which leads to things getting better. If your rights are violated by corruption, crime, and inefficiency, you should actively speak out and change the status quo. With so many years of internal fighting and trouble, I was sure Colombians will much more tough and rugged, but I found out you are probably the sweetest people on the planet, and also a little spoiled. A lot of you avoid exploring the amazing nature your country is gifted with because it’s difficult to move between places, and complain when you don’t have a TV in your hostel room. You are missing out on exploring and enjoying your amazing country when you only look for comfort.

One of the things that surprised me in Colombia was seeing older people actively working. In Bogota, I had a fun Uber ride with a 78 year old driver. It is great to see older people who are not giving up and continue to work and provide for their families. You should embrace and support them, as they are boosting the economy and continue to feel relevant in a global job market that usually prefers younger people. Surprisingly, the sharing economy fueled by technology has given older people the possibility to get back to the job market. Uber allows them to use their car to pick up passengers, AirBNB to list their homes to receive tourists and visitors. In Israel, the taxi lobby has blocked Uber and I was impressed that Colombia lets those services operate in the gray zone of legality. Let it continue, as those new economy businesses are breaking inefficient monopolies, creating jobs, and allowing more social mobility. The sharing economy also improves the level of other service providers, who treat their clients badly without competition. If you are not sure what I mean, just take a taxi in Bogota. It should be noted that the older population must be given a chance to participate in the economy due to a nonexistent coverage of the Colombian Pension system. I have heard stories of people working for years and not receiving any pension, so the least you can do is to allow them to work, and give them the tools to do so efficiently.

Not only the elderly struggle with getting a job. In Colombia, the critical factor influencing careers is knowing the right people, especially in the public sector. Your job market is rigid, and once someone gets a job, they are afraid to change it even if they know it is not the right job for them. Rigid job market means that resources are not distributed efficiently and people are not working on things they are best at or enjoy doing. At the same time, talented workers who lack the necessary connections are left out of the job market, which leads them to illegal activities and increases crime.

The good news is that Colombians are hard workers. It was amazing for me to go on the metro in Medellin at 5:30 in the morning and see it full of people fighting to support their families and build a future for themselves while juggling between various jobs. Your government should support a flexible job market that is open for everyone, instead of complicating things with unnecessary laws. An example that comes to mind are the dozens of Monday “Puentes”. It might be good for tourism, but it’s bad for business, and more importantly, bad for your own personal freedom. As Colombians start working with clients and businesses around the world, it will be very hard to explain to them that half of your Mondays are a general vacation for everyone. Colombians deserve more vacation days than they have now, but forcing everyone to take vacations at the same time is counterproductive. People should be able to decide their vacation days individually, and this will also allow me to get a bus ticket to Cartagena in “Semana Santa” the next time I visit.

The collective vacations connect to another interesting phenomenon, the Colombian Family. European and Americans leave their homes when they are 18, while Colombians seem to stay there forever. Your family unity is inspiring, but it might also cause your younger generation to have reduced ambitions. Economies are boosted by hard working people and by entrepreneurs with dreams for change and prosperity. The social norm of parents taking care of their children regardless of age might do more damage than good. It might also bring another negative phenomenon. When your bonds to family and friends are so powerful, there is no place for anyone else outside that circle to be included. Colombia needs more integration and solidarity, and fewer isolated families and friends that keep to themselves.

Regardless of their education level, Colombians are also entrepreneurial, and your streets are full of small shops and fruit stands manned by expert sales people. Colombia is surprisingly becoming a major hub for small technology firms as well. My project StartupBlink is mapping startup ecosystems around the world, and Medellin is a star location in South America. Medellin is also becoming more popular for tourists and expats, which shows an incredible example of how a troubled location with the worst possible image has transformed to become a success. Take the time to be proud of your country’s outstanding transition! In my first backpacking trip in 2003, Colombia was a pariah country I chose to avoid. In 2007, I took a courageous decision to arrive and fell in love with a country that had few tourists. Colombia 2017 is becoming one of the most popular touristic spots in Latin America. I will infuriate my friends from the left and right by saying that your last two governments did an outstanding job to manage both war and peace and get back control of the county that was virtually nonfunctioning. I honestly don’t understand why Colombians are so divided politically. Celebrate your transition, love and respect one another, and understand that you are one people. You will rise or fall together.

This opens a discussion about solidarity. It doesn’t seem like Colombians care about each other. It’s not enough to feel Colombian when the national team is playing, you should mostly feel it during tragedies and when people are suffering. People suffer a lot in Colombia. I was shocked to see daily life go on when the tragedy in Mocoa occurred with more than 300 casualties. Israel’s strength is its solidarity. When tragedy occurs, our country is on hold, mourning, enraged.  Solidarity sounds like a nice thing to have, but for Colombia it is crucial, since it will allow you to confront corruption. What is corruption? Taking care of yourself and your own circle at the expense of everyone else. Colombian lack of solidarity brings corruption, since, if the only people you care about are your family and friends, homeless Colombians in your streets and in other regions like La Guajira and Mocoa are forgotten. It seems like you have given up on them, and it is clear they’ve given up on you as well.  If you start caring about the “lost Colombians,” corruption will diminish and become socially unacceptable just like in Japan, regardless of the punishment for it. After living in more than 60 countries, it became clear to me that corruption is highly correlated with the norms and priorities of the ordinary people rather than politicians. Politicians are a reflection of the people, and have the same ethics and priorities of anyone else. Colombians complaining about corruption are often the same people who pay no taxes on their income, jumping over the bus meter to avoid paying the full price, not respecting lines, or blocking the sidewalk with their car.

Colombia is generally not a safe country and that’s why many of you surround yourselves with electric fences, only to find out that those fences can’t protect you from your own people. You are lucky enough to have no war of religion and ideology, it is only economic classes that separate you. Instead of building fences from your own people, it will be better to narrow the gaps and give everyone a fair chance to be successful so they have something to lose before deciding to jump over your fence.

Your crime problem is here to stay and will not be solved by Nobel prizes and peace treaties. I generally had luck traveling for 6 months without major incidents, other than one time where I was the only passenger in a bus that got robbed in the outskirts of Bucaramanga by a teenager with a pistol. Luckily, he looked at me and decided I don’t look rich enough so he just robbed the driver of my 2,100 pesos ticket. Both the teenager and driver seemed to see this as a normal turn of events. The teenager had nothing to lose and the driver has no hope for change. Crime will only get worse, as the gaps widen between successful Colombians and those who are weak and left behind with their poverty, lack of education, and addictions. Colombia should prioritize giving those people more possibilities to narrow the gaps, and heavily invest in education and other informal programs that give young and older people a chance. Cheer those people and become their fans. At the same time, you should make sure criminals without hope are kept in jails. It was not their fault to be left neglected for dozens of years by bad governance and a lack of solidarity, but unfair as it is, you shouldn’t let them back to your streets without a solution that makes sure they don’t go back to crime.

I decided to visit Camarones in La Guajira for a break close to the sea and desert. While sitting and ordering a fish from one of the kiosks near the sea, a dog came close to my table. I felt sorry and gave it a few bones, then waited for it to leave. A few minutes later, a group of 7 small children started sitting around my table. They stared at me, and then had the courage to start eating the fish bones. The plate was clean after 2 minutes when they left. The Colombia I have seen in Medellin and Bogota is only one part of a wider picture, a very disturbing one. I left Camarones on the same day feeling sad, but also very lucky that I don’t live there. Unfortunately, you can’t do the same. I am 100% sure that if those children remain hungry, it will get back to you. People who have nothing to lose, children who are left neglected, will be Colombia’s future problem. In a few years, you will see some of them defeated and asking you for money in the street, in a restaurant when you eat, or when you are parking your car. You will see the more entrepreneurial version of them with a gun/knife threatening you and your family for your belongings. You might even see the demagogue or charismatic version of one of them as your next populist leader demanding justice for all while destroying your economy and your past achievements. You can’t keep yourself and your family isolated, safe, happy, and prosperous with fences – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

5 Responses so far.

  1. Gustavo says:

    As a Colombian I must say I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. I would go as far as to say you have more insight into Colombian problems than some Colombians who have not travelled abroad nor their own country.

    I fully share your concerns about education, infrastructure and the like; but the way I see it, those are only symptoms of the root cause: corruption. Furthermore, it pains me that this corruption as you mention is fueled by everyday people not caring. We choose to avoid, rather than fix the real problem.

    In our defense, our we have had lots of civil wars, and the ongoing conflict had lasted for more than 50 years; full of atrocities and violent reprisals of civil liberties that you would take for granted in Israel and other western high-income countries. I believe that such climate, endured for generations, have shaped our priorities and has led Colombians to try to secure a living for their families above everything as distrust grows between us. All of which is distilled in the Colombian maxim: “el vivo vive del bobo, y el bobo de papi y mami” which can be roughly translated as “the smart makes a living at the expense of the dumb, and the dumb lives off from their parents”

    I’m sorry from the rant. It might appear as pessimistic, but it’s not. I’m concerned, off course, but I believe that we have an historical opportunity to feel Colombians first and foremost, and to care about our country as it were our own kin and blood, because it is.

    Pd – I would love to become a nomad, looking forward to hear from you. I also have a background in accounting and finance and it would be enlightening to know how did you make the transition. I hope I’m not too old. Kudos and keep up the good work.

    • Eli says:

      hey Gustavo! You are never too old to start!
      I am glad you liked the article, and I have to say I am very optimistic about Colombia. The core resource of amazing smart people is there, so there is no reason for it not to constantly become a better place to live and travel.

  2. oscar says:

    I am Colombian and I think you have made a great analysis. I will like to add something more, maybe you didnt notice because is not so obvious at first, but every region has its own culture, and people here are so much regionalist. costeños are pro-costeños, paisas are pro-paisas. For example, you can hear a paisa saying “If I can choose a will prefer to give the job to a paisa”, people here agree with that mentallity, because that guy love his region and his people. Well, surprise, that is bad, that is xenophobia, is not praiseworthy, is like an american not giving a job to a colombian because he prefers give the job to another american. Is an extension of that “my family and my friends” philosophy, to be “my family, my friends and my region”.

    • Eli says:

      hi Oscar,
      yes, I have witnessed it more than anything in Medellin. You are right, a country is better off united, although a little bit of regional pride is not bad, as long as you give everyone a fair shot 🙂 Suerte y gracias por comenntar!

  3. Daniel Rozenblum says:

    Thanks Eli – Great read!

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