This article and photos was first published in the December 2012 issue of Phoebella Magazine as ‘Life as an Exchange Student”.
We’ve just noticed them building Colombia’s biggest Christmas tree in Plaza Simon Bolivar when my housemate grabs my shoulder – “Firewood!” We’re walking home through the obnoxious, polluted rush that is central Bogota in the early evening. Our apartment’s fireplace up in La Candelaria, the riotously colourful old centre of this five hundred year old city, has remained unused for the three months we’ve lived there. But city workers are now lopping branches off the few trees that line the Septima, central Bogota’s main drag, and we leap on a pile of fresh wood that’s been left behind. Within thirty seconds a homeless man has appeared, shirtless in the evening chill, and starts helping us pick out the useable branches.
Three months earlier I was fresh out of clean, sterile Brisbane, a city where confrontations with homelessness are largely limited to a few people sleeping on Fortitude Valley’s Brunswick Street Mall. Back then I would have blushed and politely asked the man to move on. But Colombia has changed me. We welcome his help – Javier is his name – and promise some food if he helps us carry a load of wood up to our apartment. Javier hoists a gargantuan load of branches onto his back and takes off up Calle 11, bragging in coarse Spanish about his exploits as a champion boxer back in the day. When the job is done he accepts our shopping bag of bread and fruit and then he’s off again, disappearing into the street.
The life of an exchange student is good anywhere, but those of us in Colombia have it made. Unlike the usual destinations for exchange students (Great Britain, Canada, the United States and continental Europe), Colombians aren’t at all accustomed to meeting Australians. Should you find yourself in a bar looking for a salsa partner, you’ll be overwhelmed with volunteers. You’ll get used to being stared at, parents will point you out to their children as a “gringo”, and you’ll often have to explain the very basics of Australian culture in Spanish. Most essentials in Colombia – travel, food, wine, beer, utilities and rent – are cheap, allowing your savings or Youth Allowance to go a little further towards luxuries that student life in Australia mightn’t permit. Indigenous handcrafts, hilariously bad Mona Lisa knock-offs, ancient typewriters, incense candles and telephones that couldn’t possibly still work can all be found for sale in the street in the Sunday markets. If you want a hat, you go to the city’s hat district. Kitchen sinks are found in the kitchen sink district. And so it goes.
My exchange university is Universidad del Rosario, an affluent four hundred year old private institution in central Bogota, and the possible setting for a Latino version of The O.C. I spend my classes rubbing shoulders with the friendly, clean cut sons and daughters of senators and businessmen and struggling to participate in discussions about art in Spanish. In the afternoons I take Spanish classes at Universidad Nacional. Colombia’s largest public university has socialist graffiti on every wall, a plaza named after Che Guevara, and kids with beards and tattoos who play frisbee and smoke joints on the grass. A family of horses roam freely around the grounds and a piece of graffiti above the main gate warns you “Danger! Reality on the other side”.
Any article about Colombia needs to address certain clichés. The country once had a reputation as a violent, corrupt narco-state, and justifiably so. Indeed, most Australians seem ignorant of anything Colombian beyond drugs and Pablo Escobar. For those unfamiliar with Pablo Escobar, imagine if Carl Williams was a billionaire who assassinated policemen and politicians, blew up a plane, and then tried to run for public office. The drug trade has undoubtedly played a huge role in Colombia’s past, and cheap, high purity cocaine can still be found relatively easily – just ask a street vendor outside any Bogota nightclub. However, the worst of Colombia’s history seems to be behind it. Peace talks between the FARC – the country’s largest left wing guerrilla group – and the government are underway in Norway and the bulk of Latin America’s drug related violence has moved to Mexico. Certain issues still exist – those who’ll tell you Colombia is completely safe are just as wrong as those who say it’s dangerous – but the country is far more welcoming, and far more beautiful than it is given credit for.
It’s the people that seduce you into loving this country. Bogota – crowded, dirty, polluted, gritty and grey – would be unbearable if it wasn’t full of Colombians. Music fills the streets, people chat at length with strangers, street art brightens up even the most neglected neighbourhoods and there is a real sense of community that Australian big city life can lack. If Bogota’s high altitude chill and crowds get you down, a few hours on a bus will take you to colonial villages, thermal springs and mountain hiking trails. Miss a couple of classes and a cheap flight will take you to the Amazon jungle, deserts in La Guajira, the unexplored Pacific coast, hiking trails in the Andes, organic coffee farms around Medellin and Caribbean beaches so impossibly beautiful they’ll bring a tear to your eye. So while you’re around the barbecue with the family this Christmas, spare a thought for those exchange students living in Colombia. No, we won’t quite be dodging guerrillas’ bullets or under guard waiting for a ransom to come through. Rather, we’ll be sweating it out in the Amazon, hiking in the snows of El Cocuy or in the houses of friends eating natilla (a Christmas dessert) and drinking aguardiente (a disgusting aniseed liquor). Wish us luck.