When I ask expats why they initially chose to live in Colombia, most respond with the same answer, “Colombians.” For the second year in a row, a WIN/Gallup survey has deemed Colombia the happiest, most hopeful nation on earth. Some expats arrived here white knuckled, their minds programmed to believe that the negative picture painted by the international press told the whole story. But their opinions changed quickly, as the warmth and generosity of their hosts enveloped them. But is kindness the only reason foreigners live in Colombia? And what are they up to?
As International Living magazine’s Colombia correspondent, and as a resident of Colombia myself, I have the pleasure of meeting many expats. While our nationalities, ages and interests run the gamut, I often feel we share more similarities than differences. Forced to describe the type of foreigners who choose to live here, I likely would say the “creative class” – applying a most bohemian definition to the term.
I find it amazing how many expats trace the roots of their new lives back to the economic crisis. Some lost everything, including the hope of re-building their lives at home. But rather than wallow in self-pity over broken careers, foreclosed homes, lost posses- sions and wounded pride, they packed their bags and set out on a new adventure. They dove headlong into a valley of fear and uncertainty and landed in the joy of their most precious dreams.
True pioneers live among us. In Popayán, a young Scottish couple almost single-handedly created a market for foreign tourists, and in Pereira, a Dutch-Colombian couple are following suit. Colombia’s expat-owned travel agencies are attracting people from all over the world and foreign geeks are transforming Medellín into the Silicon Valley of Colombia. Expats are producing good paying jobs, paying taxes and exporting Colombian-made goods to foreign shores.
Foreign transplants are introducing their own cultures to this country, giving Colombians more choices than ever before. Buga now has California-style microbrew beer, Salento has Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and Popayán has authentic Italian ravioli. And countless Colombian adults and schoolchildren are learning second languages, thanks to the expat community. Everywhere I turn, I see Colombians embracing our cultures as eagerly as we have embraced theirs. And not to say the least, Colombia has an English language newspaper, going strong after six years and welcoming with every issue more Colombian readers. Pioneers of free, independent media. And they are not alone.
An American cycling fanatic has led the charge for cleaner air and more bike lanes in Bogotá. An Australian hostel owner raises money for a San Gil orphanage and several foreigners are spearheading campaigns to help change Colombia’s tarnished image. A Belgian woman publishes a popular Colombia travel guide and a New York City couple just released a book about Bogotá’s hidden treasures.
I know what some of you might be thinking, not all of Colombia’s expats are so desirable. Sure, a few rapacious, bitter, curmudgeonly types lurk among us. And we’ve had our fill of drug and sex tourists, some of whom never leave. But, by and large, the expats I meet are making a positive impact on society, and Colombians seem to appreciate it.
Some expats fear who and what will come next. They’re afraid that waves of foreigners will descend on Colombia, driving up the cost of living and turning their paradises into Gringoland. As Colombia transforms its world image, some changes seem inevitable. But many of the changes occurring today come from within. Colombian developers are buying up fincas, constructing exclusive gated communities and building monster retail complexes simply to cash in on middle class expansion. And we can’t dismiss the effects of recently implemented free trade agreements. At times, it seems our politicians want to hand over the entire country to multinational corporations.
In June, I attended an International Living conference in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where I had the opportunity to meet readers face to face. Most attendees knew nothing about Colombia, at least nothing positive. But as the conference progressed, more and more curious souls approached me for information, and they were stunned to learn about Colombia’s sophistication, rich culture and biodiversity.
True to form, those interested in Colombia were educated, cultured, adventurous, energetic, friendly, and fun loving. In short, they were like us, folks willing to embrace a new culture and share our own. They were people who want to become part of the Colombian fabric, invest in Colombian and expat businesses and enhance the lives of those around them.
To Colombians I express my grati- tude for your gracious hospitality and to expats, I tip my hat for bringing social and cultural diversity to this jewel of a nation.