Ciara Kenny

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Giving Colombia serious thought

Irish emigrants are attracted to English-speaking countries for obvious reasons, but the opportunities offered by Latin America should be given serious consideration, writes Steven Lydon.

Thu, Jan 24, 2013, 12:53


Irish emigrants are attracted to English-speaking countries for obvious reasons, but the opportunities offered by Latin America should be considered by those with a sense of adventure, writes Steven Lydon

Steven Lydon: 'To see a ginger man is a rare sign of good luck, and merits the placing of a wish'

It’s no secret that Colombia is increasingly recognised as a travel destination, owing largely to its remarkable recovery in the last ten years. But in Ireland, the country still struggles with perceptions of violence, drug wars and kidnappings. Indeed, many only know of Colombia via our most notorious export: the so-called Colombia three, IRA members who allegedly trained the FARC in the art of bomb-making. The comparison is not incidental; though our own political difficulties are usually framed as a thing of the past, our reputation has likewise indelibly been marked.

Despite obvious climatic differences, both of our nations are staunchly Catholic and share a colonial past. Like Ireland, the Colombian government has sought stronger ties with North America, most notably via the US–Colombia Trade Agreement in 2012, with an eye to exports and foreign investment. This has led to a surging economy, and a currency that holds its own against the dollar. But the unequal distribution of these spoils has received critical comment, and led to hostile relations with its neighbours, particularly Venezuela and Ecuador.

When first opening my guide to Spanish on the plane to Bogotá, I had no idea how vital it would be. The comforts of European travel are absent; the expectation that someone will speak basic English; that mobile phones will connect to the nearest network; that all will know of a country called Ireland. Struggling to communicate with my taxi driver as we hurtled down an unfamiliar highway, I was disabused of these expectations, and wondered more than once what I had gotten myself into. After finding myself on a strange road after midnight, I quickly learned to become what is known as a “language person.”

Bogotá: concrete in the jungle

At three kilometres above sea level, the air of Bogotá also takes some getting used to. For the first few days, a slope equivalent to North Great George’s street leaves you gasping for breath, and the potency of alcohol is doubled; that is, if one judges from the hangover. The combination of thin air and high altitude make the sun a potent weapon against pasty Irish skin, for which sunscreen is but a futile ward. For the Colombians, to see a ginger man is a rare sign of good luck, and merits the placing of a wish, much as we would curse a black cat or magpie.

Bogotá looks as if it had landed in a jungle; palm trees surge out from the concrete, and parallel to the chaotic motorways is an immense mountain that runs the length of the city. The counterpoint between brute technology and nature is fascinating; next to spiralling tarmac structures are patches of wild grass and foliage. Those of us weaned on penalty points will be unsettled by the lack of seat belts, yet our taxis do share some of that Latina spirit that obeys no mere terrestrial law.

Our famed openness as a nation is also matched by the Colombians, who do not conceal their mirth when faced with the spectacle of an Irishman dancing. There is some innate stiffness in our cultural inheritance, visible even in our national dance, which resists excessive motion of the limbs. For a man nurtured on these stoic virtues of immobility, the rhythmic motion of the hips truly can seem obscene; never have I felt so detached from the actions of my own body. Ultimately one develops a strange compulsion for this joyful celebration of corporeality – yet I remain a terrible dancer.

Irish emigrants are attracted to English-speaking countries for obvious reasons. But this places unnecessary restrictions on real possibilities. In global terms we are comparatively wealthy as a nation. College graduates remain unburdened by student debt in contrast to England or the United States. EU membership means that our currency still holds disproportionately-high value compared to the actual state of the economy. Our generation is therefore unique as it can see emigration as opportunity rather than compulsion.

Younger Irish should therefore give Latin America serious thought. The acquisition of a second language pays dividends in all aspects of life, and opens one up to experiences otherwise unheard of. Schools and universities would do well to foster connections with their Latin American counterparts; in the rush to increase government funding for maths and science, second-language acquisition should certainly not be forgotten. Though the returns of such an investment do not fit on any Celtic Tiger flow chart, the rewards are rich and last a lifetime.

Steven Lydon is a PhD student in German Philosophy at Harvard who spends his summers in Colombia. He won an airline voucher in the ‘Why I love where I live’ Generation Emigration competition last summer, and used it to visit Colombia again over Christmas. He blogs at