Despite its social and political problems, I love living in Colombia
A lot has changed since the fall of the cartels in the 1990s but crime rates are still high in Bogota
‘Colombians are often quite interested when they hear I am Irish; they want to know more about the IRA (Or ‘eee-rah’ as they pronounce it) and how our nation managed to achieve peace.’
Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a strange city. Despite being close to the equator, its high altitude gives it a chilly wet climate that makes an Irishman feel quite at home.
Most of the city’s nine million inhabitants live in poverty, yet it is also home to multinational companies and wealthy neighbourhoods, many a testament to the incredible economic growth of the past five years.
Colombia is the country home to the world’s longest civil war, but Bogota seems to be an eternity away from the mostly rural violence. And, despite the country's shockingly high crime rates, the majority of Colombians are among the friendliest and most welcoming people on earth.
I first left Ireland in 2013 to teach English in South Korea. After more than a year there I travelled to the World Cup in Brazil before making my way to Colombia to try teaching in a different region and culture.
The contrast couldn’t have been greater. Korea is perhaps the safest, most developed country in the world. Crime is rare and society is almost universally high-tech. Colombia is not quite there yet. Although a lot has changed since the fall of the cartels in the 90s and the height of FARC’s power in the early 2000s, the country remains a dangerous place.
Nobody with any sense will hail a taxi on the street at night, for fear of being robbed by an unregistered driver. The level of security in many offices and housing estates seems insane to a person arriving from Europe or Asia.
While this level of crime can be disconcerting, it is the fundamental inequality of Colombian society that has been the most shocking to me. Like in many Latin American nations, the elite live in first world conditions while the poor in the cities southern slums lack access to the most basic modern facilities.
It’s probably not so surprising that a fundamentally unequal society has brought about such a long-running insurgency. The current peace talks with FARC mean Colombians are often quite interested when they hear I am Irish; they want to know more about the IRA (Or ‘eee-rah’ as they pronounce it) and how our nation managed to achieve peace. Sadly, I don’t usually have any relevant advice to give them.
Despite all these problems, I love living in Colombia. The people here are warm and friendly and, despite the country's horrific past, have a positive upbeat attitude towards life. While sometimes one would miss the infrastructure in Ireland (or, much better, Korea) there are many positives to be found in the informal, slightly shambolic, nature of Colombian life.
You can buy just about anything at a stall on the street from coffee to watch batteries. If you don’t feel like paying much for a beer, go to the chairs outside the local off-license and drink there.
It’s also a wonderfully varied country, most of which I have yet to visit. I have been to the pleasantly warm and beautiful second city of Medellin but have yet to see the beaches of the Caribbean coast, or the Amazon rainforest.
For too long the terrible conflict has hidden the many great aspects of Colombia from the wider world. The current peace talks which will hopefully soon see an end to the conflict, give hope that this may not be the case much longer. It’s certainly an interesting time to be here.