Now feeling at home here in Colombia, it´s funny to reflect back on the moment I arrived here in with little clue of what to expect. Let´s just say I was quite surprised by a whole bunch of things – new life, landscapes, the big city of Bogotá, new friends, neighbors and fellow Colombianos. I love stumbling across the daily learnings about Colombian culture, but there are certainly a few things that would have been great to know ahead of time:
1) Every, I repeat EVERY Colombian dances salsa and is great at it! Sure I heard that apparently Cali is famous for it, but I had no idea that it seems to be something in the water everywhere here (or the jugos, or arepas maybe?); it is impressive. Not that I can´t fumble my way through the steps, but I definitely would have taken a dance class or two to brush up so that I could join in the fun right away! Not to worry though, if you don´t have time at home, once you arrive there are loads of cheap or free classes all over and even more charming Colombians willing to help you out on the dance floor. Oh, and don´t forget those other lesser known but equally lively dances – merengue, champeta, cumbia…
2) Bring a sweater! And strong sunscreen, and a swimsuit…really be prepared for all weather. Living in Bogotá in particular, I quickly have learned that Andean nights can get pretty chilly for being a tropical country! I knew the average temperature and scoffed at the several recommendations to bring some wool socks. Well, now that I have accumulated a bigger collection of sweaters and scarves, I can tell you that I too recommend you take the layers advice seriously. The great thing is that any type of weather you could possible want is just around the corner. The sun always makes an appearance sometime during the day in the high altitudes and you can find yourself in desert, beach, snow-capped mountains or rainforest with a short and cheap hop on a bus or plane.
3) This is not your high school Spanish class. In general Colombian Spanish is very clear which is great for beginners and getting around easily. However, when you throw in a mix of the local vocabulary, there can be entire phrases that at the beginning I barely understood. It is pretty easy to learn though because half of the words I didn´t recognize mean “party” or “awesome”. I like the priorities here. Not to mention each region has a distinct accent to constantly keep you on your toes.
4) Hot chocolate and cheese are a brilliant combination. And I mean together, in the same mug. Yup, you heard that right. And I only wish I had known about this wacky mix my entire life! To combat those chilly days in the mountains, you can join in the fun by ordering a “chocolate completo” from many traditional cafés in Bogotá or the mountainous region. Drop in a few pieces of cheese and let it start to melt in the hot chocolate…in a minute or two, voilà! Delicious and gooey cheese to wash down with your chocolate and the several scrumptious typical breads (no plate is complete here without the carbs!).
5) Colombia is more how it is too often portrayed in the news. To quote the popular Colombian group Choquibtown in their song Somos Pacifico, I truly wish I had known more about Colombian history, the people, the landscapes and diversity before coming. Like many, I really only knew what I had heard in the media and from a few people, but to understand what makes this place so beautiful, complex and resilient, there is a lot more to know than what´s on the surface. Bit by bit, I learn from friends and people I meet in each new place I have visited. And clearly the best way to learn about Colombia is to visit, so “acá te esperamos”! But don´t wait. From the Capybara (biggest rodent in the world) to Bogotá´s legalized graffiti culture, I urge you to start your Colombian education as soon as possible. You won´t be disappointed!