When I told my parents I was going to a job fair to look for an international teaching job they were excited for me, but the idea definitely took a bit of getting used to. I am the oldest child, and short of crossing the Mississippi for four years of college in La Crosse, Wisconsin, I have never spent more than about two months away from home.
When I told them I was looking into Colombia the conversation intensified a bit because, let's be honest, Colombia doesn't exactly have reassuring reputation as the safest place in the world. Nonetheless, they remained supportive, and with the exception of the occasional drug jokes, so did most of my friends and extended family.
My Side of Colombia
Here I sit nine months into living in a county that the U.S. State Department still warns Americans against visiting. In nine months I have taken a number of precautions to keep myself safe. I almost always call a taxi if I need one, rather than just hailing one off the street. I have yet to ever walk alone after about 9 pm at night. In fact, I rarely even walk around anywhere after 9 pm at night with a group of people unless its in a well known area with restaurants or bars and lots of people around. I try not to make a scene or draw attention to myself as an outsider when I am in public places. I stay away from more dangerous parts of cities like Bogota, Medellin and Cali. As a result of these basic precautions I can count on one hand the times I have felt even the slightest bit uncomfortable in the last nine months. Now, knock on wood, I know anything can happen, and crime takes place all the time, but for now I feel safe.
The Other Side of the Story
This morning I finished Ingrid Betancourt's book, My Struggle To Reclaim Colombia. Yes this is the same book that I started reading after book club four days ago. I couldn't put it down! In her first book, Betancourt details her time as a child growing up in France in the early 1960s until her present day involvement in the Colombian government. Despite all the odds stacked her favor, Betancourt was elected to the House of Representatives in 1994 and the Senate in 1998. She ran on a platform of anti-corruption - she exposed fellow politicians (including then president Ernesto Samper) who accepted bribes and money from drug traffickers. She marched against election fraud after she won a Senate seat despite the corrupt blocking of votes against her. In 2002 she published this book in the midst of a campaign for presidential election. A campaign that Alvaro Uribe, the current president of Colombia won. However, after the publication of this book and before the end of the campaign season, Betancourt was kidnapped by the most powerful guerilla group in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on February 23, 2002. Six years (2, 321 days) later she was rescued on July 2, 2008 by the Colombian National Army. In the time after her rescue, Betancourt has been both praised and criticized in Colombia and internationally. While she certainly paints a picture of herself as a national hero, others, including fellow hostages and her ex-husband describe her as a woman who took advantage of her political and social standing both during and after captivity. As always, there are two sides to every story...
Where Two Sides Meet
Colombia now stands at a crossroads. As Colombians prepare for the next presidential election to take place in a mere 29 days, I struggle to understand the reality of where these two worlds meet. On one hand, I realize that Colombia is becoming a safer place to live and to travel every single day. The majority of Americans and other travelers who visit here leave with a positive outlook that surprises even the most cynic of international onlookers. Is this because of Ingrid Betancourt and her work in Colombian politics? Maybe in part. She was one of the first people to stand up against corruption at any cost. But is the struggle to reclaim Colombia, to reclaim democracy over? Definitely not. While I do feel safe here on a daily basis, I still would not list Colombia as one of the safest places to visit or travel. There will continue to be issues related to corruption, drugs, smuggling and dishonesty that remain to be dealt with on a national scale.
The Colombia I know today is a beautiful place, albeit complex and complicated in its political scene, and for me, what is of the utmost importance is that I am able to judge, to understand, to contemplate, to think, to know, to explore this country for myself. It might not make the State Department's Top 10 List for travel, but that doesn't mean it won't make mine.