The story of how I moved to Colombia – via Scotland
About 3.5 years ago I met a Colombian while studying. In Newcastle, England. And he went on and on about how beautiful his country is. “Colombia, yeah right…”, I thought. In my head there was an entirely different image to the sound of this name. I admit it. You know, cocaine and stuff. There were many countries on my list but Colombia has never been one of them. I imagined it to be a bit like scenes from ‘City of Gods’.
As things with the Colombian got more serious and flights were on offer, we booked our first trip to his homeland. Somewhere in-between flying out and booking we also spontaneously turned this trip into our honeymoon after a visit to Newcastle Council and I still sometimes find it hard to believe that this happened (so fast).
Imagine this: Newcastle Council, a fairly ugly piece of architecture in Northern England, on a snowy December afternoon, a Colombian and a German entering matrimony immediately after their graduation ceremony across the street at Newcastle University – what are the odds?
Five days after that we landed in Colombia. This was my debut to the so-called emerging countries. I had a lot of countries under my belt but none of them were just half as exotic as Colombia, I had never been to Latin America, Africa or the Middle or Far East. When others ventured out to do volunteering in Africa, I opted for backpacking around New Zealand or Andalusia or a semester in Canada or a cycling tour around Ireland. I did soft adventures. I traveled alone and I even tramped, I am not a total chicken, but countries that had rebels, terrorists, drug cartels or significantly higher numbers of crime did not attract me. So yes, perhaps I was a chicken.
Ironic that I married a Colombian before even meeting his family or seeing his country. Not sure what had gotten into me. I guess I liked the story. And the man, of course.
Normally I like cold countries: Canada, Scandinavia, Britain. I get lazy when temperatures exceed 20 degrees and I like to cycle to work/school/friends’ houses without arriving covered in sweat. I had toured Australia for eight months after school, worked on a cattle farm in the outback. I knew that heat was not a huge problem for me. But still I preferred mild cold.
Then came Colombia. Bogotá on 2600 meters above sea level let me shiver (I also happened to have a terrible flu) and gasp for air (my nose was blocked). It was not a good start. We set out to explore in a black Chevrolet and were bound for the Atlantic coast. We crisscrossed Colombia’s length. Villages, fruit stands, stray dogs, donkeys, mules, groups of children, churches, more dogs, chicken, farms, mountains, lush fields, cows, eucalyptus trees, more mountains, people in ponchos, motorbikes, more motorbikes and the most diverse landscapes from mountains to eucalyptus forests to plains to canyons to almost desert to tropical forests flew past the car window.
I was blown away. The world outside the window seemed so alien to me. How little had I known of the world! How imbalanced my view! I felt ashamed of myself.
The world outside the car window seemed so alien to me. How little had I known of the world!
You cannot imagine (that is unless you know Colombia, of course), what a country this is and how much you miss out if you think about it as simple-minded as I had done!
In the two weeks’ holiday I found myself in Bogotá’s colonial old town with its magical colorful walls, driving through the Chicamocha canyon, the second largest canyon in the world, wandering along Caribbean beaches, through jungles, mangrove forests and Cartagena’s picture perfect old town, sipping a cocktail on its historic city walls during sunset, galloping across prairies in the Eastern plains, swimming in wild rivers, jumping down waterfalls and trying food and fruits of whose existence I had never ever heard of. Temperatures ranged from 12 to 30 degrees and landscapes looked like everything landscapes can possibly look like and so did the people.
I felt like I had just dreamed Colombia.
While my new husband stayed with his family for a bit longer, I flew back to Europe alone. On the plane I felt like I had just dreamed Colombia. I think I did not do much on the flight, just staring out of the window, remembering again and again all the scenes, taking notes while the memories were still fresh, fumbling with my new wedding ring and occasionally closing my eyes with a goofy grin.
Logically, what happened next?
A: We moved to Colombia.
B: We got divorced because it was all too fast.
C: We randomly moved to Scotland.
The correct answer is C.
We decorated our first Edinburgh apartment with colourful photos from our Colombian adventures. The apartment had ‘Avenue’ in its address. Sounds fancy? Well actually we were pressed to move somewhere and it was January, a time when nobody moves houses, so there wasn’t much to look at. Also we were technically broke after a quick wedding, visa papers and travel. Our first apartment became what was an unheated over priced shit hole with drug addicts as neighbours (ah, now here are the drug stories!). And I didn’t feel safe walking down the street at night – at least not with a purse.
He simply enjoyed that the office had heating, a luxury our flat didn’t offer.
My husband dived into his new job as an engineer for renewable energy from day one. In fact, he dived in with so much enthusiasm that sometimes at 9 pm I still found myself alone at home and wondered if I should call round the local hospitals. He simply enjoyed that the office had heating, a luxury our flat didn’t offer.
My first job with an NGO seemed promising at first but turned out to be not much more than managing their social media channels and website, making coffee and seating important people with a cheesecake smile. It actually involved a LOT of coffee making and I still sometimes wonder if it was not just to humiliate me since tea is the preferred hot drink in the UK. Or so I was told.
Winter was long, the flat was freezing, the alcoholics next door were noisy, my job got boring, my husband was not at home. Was this it? Did I take a wrong turn somewhere down the life line? My original plan had been to apply for an internship in China after uni. How did married life in Scotland come about? I got depressed. I went to the pub. I met a guy who told me about a job vacation. I applied. I got the job. It rocked!
Domestic life was on the upswing. Still my husband and me talked about the option of moving to Colombia again and again. At some point we would do it, we decided. It’s beautiful, it’s warm, we’d have some family there. But later, we thought. Much later.
We moved into a decent flat, the circle of friends grew, we did lots of wild camping and cycling and road trips around the highlands in what was referred to as “Scotland’s second warmest summer on records”. Timing is everything, eh? Things were great, the office had ocean view, I met interesting people through work, traveled to the European mainland and even to Moscow, I cycled to the beach after work or ran into the hills next to Edinburgh. This could have gone on and on.
Our flat converted into a Colombian mini-embassy.
But Colombia had done something with me, it had touched something in me. When people heard of ‘Colombia’ they sometimes pulled their eyebrows up or frowned and I knew what they were thinking, imagining. It annoyed me. I started to defend Colombia, I started to sell it, to promote it. We invited friends and colleagues over for Colombian dinners taking place under the colourful holiday snapshots on the wall. Our flat converted into a Colombian mini-embassy.
We just couldn’t quite overcome the feeling of being in Scotland only temporarily.
It rained and we drank whisky. We took our bicycles on many train rides around the country and camped and trekked. While life was good something was missing. We just couldn’t quite overcome the feeling of being in Scotland only temporarily. “So when are you thinking of going back home?”, Scots would ask us, neighbors, people at the market, the local stores. Perhaps moving away from home or moving to Scotland seemed odd to Scots. Or perhaps they didn’t like the idea of having foreigners settle here?
We thought we’d stay in Scotland for a couple of years or so.We really did. When my husband’s five year family visa arrived, we had jumped and danced around the park outside the royal mail office.
Only eight months after that he moved to Colombia. My husband went almost exactly a year after he had arrived and I followed five months later. What had happened? Many things, one in particular, that pushed us to leave for Colombia. So we did.
I packed together the remaining possessions of a short but intense life in Scotland, of one and a half years. While I had no idea of what I would be doing in Colombia with my rudimentary Spanish, I swore to myself that I won’t be doing any job that involves coffee making in an office environment.
The first weeks I am being dragged to various meetings, job interviews and shown (!) to friends and family. I feel strange. I feel wonderful. I feel low. I feel high. I take none of the job offers (as an emerald sales person for example) and declare to my new family that I rather devote my life to the poor than to the rich. That didn’t happen. I didn’t devote my life to the poor.
Instead, in my second month in Colombia, I start teaching German in Bogota’s wealthy north. Life becomes good. Or goodish. Because we still don’t have our own place. And my husband works all day and has long commutes and so do I. I teach evening classes and arrive to a sleeping man at 11 pm. On my daily nocturnal bus rides and walks through Bogota’s strangely deserted city center, I take notes. Bogota at night! And I am walking its streets on my own. How bizarre, I think, I feel much safer than in the avenue we lived on in Edinburgh. In my first three months in Colombia I fill almost four diaries and send short stories and daily anecdotes home on a regular basis.
My mind turned into a gypsy mind. I was convinced, there was no need to continue doing something one doesn’t enjoy.
We go flat hunting and I am planning to build my own little language institute, a class room in a spare bedroom, since enquiries keep rolling in and I enjoy teaching. But then we don’t get the desired flat and my husband looks more and more tired every day complaining about his boss. I tell him to quit work. I am not sure why I suddenly feel so brave. I guess since I had come to Colombia and given up on stability all together, it did not matter much if my husband was working or not. We would figure something out along the road as we always had. My mind had turned into a gipsy mind. I was convinced that there was no need to continue doing something one doesn’t enjoy.
I knew we didn’t need much, we could live on very little, come up with solutions and establish ourselves only within weeks. We had done this in Newcastle, in Edinburgh and in Bogotá.
We moved to Yopal, an hour flight time from Bogotá, where my husband owned half a house. We tried to set up a language school – and failed. We tried to set up a vegetable garden and be independent – and failed. We talked about opening a restaurant – and never went ahead with it. We thought about opening a mountain biking park – and didn’t. We considered building a house and renting it out – and didn’t. We considered loads of things and it was both exciting and exhausting to be reinventing our lives.
It felt like something good is going to happen. It was not much more than a slight rumble in my belly telling me that we are going to be alright.
I turned to journalism, translating and freelance consulting to keep our heads above the waterline. I wondered again if I had taken a wrong turn somewhere in life. But also it felt like something good is going to happen. It was not much more than a slight rumble in my belly telling me that we are going to be alright (and also that, again, I probably had eaten somewhere not so clean). My intuition told me to hang in there, to let Colombia happen to me.
Then the thing that eventually really attracted us, that really spoke to us, our work experience and skills, was to drive international tourism to this unknown part of Colombia. It became the thing we wanted to go ahead with no matter what. We saw market potential, we loved the place, we already had sold Colombia to others before coming here, we were cycling, hiking and horse riding here already anyway. So why not take visitors, show them this part of Colombia, the wild rivers, the lush forests, the vast prairies.
Friends and family visited and were our guinea pigs. The idea flourished and grew. Aventur Eco Tours was born early this year. And many more good things happened, like a chain reaction of goodness the moment we decided we would do it no matter what.
And there is also a wedding shot from outside Newcastle Council in the kitchen with a snowy white background and our excited smiles pressed through blue lips.
Little failures and fallbacks happened. Still happen. But we also celebrate little successes, we learn from every mistake and we get really excited about our work. I still make coffee. A lot. But only for our guests. We have decorated the kitchen with holiday snapshots from Scotland, with photos from Canada and Germany and other cold places. And there is also a wedding shot from outside Newcastle Council with a snowy white background and our excited smiles pressed through blue lips. Our eyes speak for themselves (“I must be out of my mind. But just keep smiling”).
The shot dates back almost three years now. We look so young, not knowing where we’d head next. What a ride it was. It definitely was worth it. Every second. From the shit hole flat to coffee making to flat hunting and commuting around Bogota, it was so worth it.
Some were just stopping by and got hooked. Others fell in love with a Colombian.
And Colombia? It’s beautiful, friendly, colorful, diverse and an adventure. It’s so beautiful in fact and so full of beautiful stories and old fashioned farmers, villages and beliefs, that I just want to give it a big hug all the time and pinch its cheeks. And visitors say the same thing. There isn’t anyone who has not been captured by the magic of Colombia. Some were just stopping by and got hooked. Others fell in love with a Colombian. (This seems to happen a lot.)
Don’t worry about coming here just one second. It’s worth it. It’s NOT dangerous. Just don’t ‘give papayas’ as Colombians say (= attract attention). Most importantly, don’t be scared.
My then boyfriend in Newcastle used to say: “Colombia is so so beautiful, it’s the most beautiful country in the world. I can tell you that without actually having seen all the other countries. I just know.”
It’s this charming pride and love of Colombians for their country that makes Colombia feel so right. Colombians ask me: “Are you staying here for good?” “Who knows”, I reply. “You should. And have Colombian babies.”
What’s next? No babies, we know that. We do know, however, that whatever we do, we cannot go wrong (even if we do go wrong, it’ll be worth it).
And I know that I will not belief any image of any country until I have seen it for myself. And neither should you. No more chicken, all lion! It’s worth it.
Take risks, follow your instinct, cherish failure, embrace opportunities, do not freak if your life plans fall apart.
Oh, and visit Colombia, of course!