Reflecting on my time in Colombia… Reflections and Perceptions

Caleb
Bogotá
Reflection Post

Within the week, I will return to the United States of America. But what will I bring back with me? Not only will I be bringing little souvenirs and trinkets from my travels (packing will be tricky), but I will also be taking back a new perspective on my life. I can’t believe how incredibly lucky I am to have the opportunity to travel abroad in general, and to gain international legal experience with the help of my law school. Not everything went according to plan during my time in Colombia, but I wouldn’t change anything. These past couple of weeks have flown by, thanks to my sister’s visit. We started our journey at the beaches of Santa Marta, we explored my host city of Bogotá, and successfully hiked up to the ancient city of Machu Picchu in Peru (note to self, next time just take the bus up to the top of the mountain).

But I never forgot why I was sent here. I have been working with my boss, Lili, and other human rights faculty members at the Pontifical Xavierian University (or “La Javeriana”) to research and produce a scholarly article designed to reform prison conditions for female prisoners in Colombia—a topic I knew very little about before I came. Although my work was not as “in-the-field” as I was expecting (government officials don’t want an unqualified foreigner of the opposite sex interviewing its female prisoners, who would’ve thought?), I learned a great deal nonetheless. My research initially focused on female prison conditions in Colombia, but soon expanded to female prison conditions within the region and the world, to incorporation of human rights laws/norms into Colombian law, to international humanitarian agreements, to reasons why women entered the prison system in the first place. I will not be present when this project is finished, but I know my work will contribute to significant change in policy and perception about the penitentiary system in Colombia—the shared objective that my colleagues and I hope to achieve with this research.

Reflecting on my time outside of work, Colombia has been an amazing place to live over the past few months. While technically it is “winter” here, there really are only two seasons—rainy season (“winter”) and dry season (“summer”). So the temperature has been tremendous, on average about 60 degrees or so. I’m definitely going to miss the mountains as well. A branch of the Andes Mountains, which engulfs the very modern city of Bogotá, creates a beautiful incorporation of nature into an urban area. And don’t even get me started with the food! The fresh fruits, empanadas, arepas, tamales, the menus del día. And the coffee has been amazing, but I could probably take a break from Colombia’s own “firewater” liquor, called aguardiente.

I also (surprisingly) enjoyed being challenged to speak Spanish at home with my lovely host family as well as at work and traveling through South America. When I previously studied abroad in Spain, I used my Spanish-speaking friend as a crutch so that I didn’t have to use my Spanish very frequently. But in Colombia, I have been forced to use and expand my knowledge of the Spanish language. Although I am by no means fluent, I am proud of the progress I have been during my time here. I truly believe that immersion is the best method of learning another language, you just have to be willing to sound like an idiot sometimes (and believe me, that happens a lot). More often than not, people appreciate the effort and help you.

Before I came to Colombia, there were many voices telling me to “be careful” or “what a scary place to live” based on perceptions of a country defined by events that happened decades ago. Granted, Colombia still has its problems, but every country does (I don’t have to tell Americans). My experience in Colombia has given me the ability to see Colombia for what it really is—a beautiful, diverse, and proud country. I have felt very safe during my time here, and except for the occasional stares on the public bus (a tall “blonde” gringo is going to attract some attention), I never felt out of place. Colombians are very hospitable and generous people, and none more so than my “Colombian parents,” Ale and Mau. Without them (and their beautiful golden retriever, Greta), I would not have had such an incredible experience in Bogotá (#blessed).

As a prepare for my return to Cincinnati, I also prepare for a return to what life was like before my time in Colombia. I will no longer use two thousand Colombian pesos for a cup of delicious tinto, but instead will return to a two dollar cup of Einstein Bros. coffee. I will no longer ride the crowded Transmilenio for half an hour with street entertainers as fellow passengers, but instead will return to a five minute car ride to law school. I will no longer be the foreigner who asks countless questions to his Colombian friends ranging from politics of Colombia or which type of aguardiente is the best. Instead, I have the opportunity (and in my opinion, the obligation) to share my experiences of Colombia to Americans in order to change the perception of a stigmatized country. Living and working in Colombia has been such an unbelievable experience. Thank you so much to the Urban Morgan Institute at the University of Cincinnati College of Law for this opportunity. I have plenty more to say about Colombia and the amazing time I have had here, and I would be happy to share more in person when I return to the U.S. I appreciate those who have read my blog this summer, so as a treat I have included a few pictures of my trip to Peru. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

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