Northwestern student Prachi Murarka writes from abroad during her quarter off from school.
It’s the ideal place for those wanting to live forever young. A country of salsa music, parties seven nights a week, emeralds and Spanish pueblitos; of islands with crystal-clear water, mountains reaching up to the sky, and trees as far as the eye can see. This must be Spain, right? Or maybe it’s Costa Rica or another one of the tourist-drawing countries in South America. Let me give you another hint: This is the land of Juanes and Shakira.
Colombia is known not just for its cocaine exports anymore: Its reputation as an aesthetic and cultural jewel of South America is moving it into the spotlight.
Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, over the past five years has made the roads between the two major cities, Bogotá and Medellín, so safe that overnight buses are now always full. People used to be afraid to walk in La Candelaria, Bogotá’s historic district, even during daylight hours, but now hippies and foreigners alike flock there. Medellin’s mayor, Sergio Fajardo Valderama, spends the majority of the city’s budget on education and public spaces.
This may sound like a huge change from Pablo Escobar’s drug-peddling days, but the drug trade is still strong, especially in the rural areas. However, Colombia has changed. Colombians are finally proud of their country and showing off their patriotism: Gold, blue, and red adorn the streets.
This is where I’m living and I can’t ask for more. I’m in a foreign country without a plan except to improve my Spanish, immerse myself in the culture, and add peace and tranquility to my life. It’s a weekday as I write this and I have no work tomorrow, no class and no meetings; there’s nowhere I need to be or anything I have to do.
That liberation terrifies me. For the first time, I’m in charge of my own destiny and the choices are plentiful. I could get a job teaching, explore Bogotá, travel around Colombia, take classes in Universidad Nacional (it has two pictures of Che in its main square), take Spanish with foreign professionals at Javeriana University, volunteer to teach geography to formerly homeless boys, work at the Justice Department or just sit at home and read the books I brought with me.
This is my second stay in the country. I’m not sure exactly what forces indubitably drew me back to Colombia. As a freshman, I interned with Atlas Corps in Colombia. After two months of working in an English-speaking office in a Spanish-speaking country for 40-plus hours a week, though, I realized that I had only traveled to two other cities and my friends were mostly ex-Pats.
One night I ran into a friend of a friend on the bus. (In Bogota, you hail a bus as you would a taxi in Chicago, and the length of the ride depends on how many stops for pickup it makes.) He asked why, if I loved the country so much, didn’t I stay longer?
Why not stay? Because I was terrified! And how on Earth would I convince my parents?
“Well,” my friend said, “I work at an institute teaching English. I just got my friend a job last week. I can set up the interview for you.” I knew native English speakers could make decent money teaching – anywhere from $12 to $30 an hour, which is many times the minimum wage in Colombia.
I took the encounter as a sign: Staying was a real possibility. I interviewed and got the job, which would sustain me in Colombia even if my parents didn’t quite approve (which in the end, they did).
Before coming back, I spoke with Gary Weaver, a professor at American University who’s the godfather of cultural exchange and learning. He said that to truly know yourself don’t waste your money on counseling, but move to a foreign country. Living in a different country is a more fulfilling and fun way to realize who you are, strengthen your beliefs and take control of your self-esteem. After doubts on whether returning to Colombia was realistic, hearing Professor Weaver speak confirmed my belief that taking a quarter off to live in Colombia was a good choice.
I’m not sure what I’m doing here again, but it feels right. My female intuition has kicked in. Although my conscious mind doesn’t completely understand my rationale for being here, part of me definitely knows my reasons for coming back. I’ve made the first decision of my life that has truly terrified me, and although it’s a big risk, I’m confident the returns it will yield will be even greater. I have begun to live, without going out to the woods, and I will suck out all the marrow of this experience — and share what I learn with you in the process.