[blockquote cite=”J.R.R. Tolkien”]The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.[/blockquote]
The resiliency of my 12-year old Colombian students was evident as they brainstormed which pressing issues were facing their world, one emerged again and again: guerilla warfare.
I couldn’t help but ask…raise your hand if you personally know someone in your family or a family friend who has been impacted by guerilla warfare. Some hands shot straight up; some hands hesitated, but in the end – every hand was raised. I felt like Hilary Swank in the Colombian version of Freedom Writers, except I couldn’t remember what she did next.
I was stunned. Our city of Manizales felt so removed from the conflict, but the reality of this did not appear to surprise any of my students who daily exemplified the universality of adolescence.
The civil war had been ongoing long before they were born; bombings, assassinations, hijackings, and kidnappings were all too common for decades resulting from not only guerilla warfare but also narco-trafficking.
Rally against the FARC
But when they were only seven years old, resignation died in their country. A rally of nearly five million Colombians protested against FARC’s crimes against humanity across the country and globe. The protest on February 4th, 2008 is regarded as the biggest anti-terrorism demonstration in history. The signs roared, “We want peace!,” “No more kidnappings,!” and “No more killing!” according to BBC News. In interviews, locals expressed how proud they were that so many were no longer afraid to stand against FARC, and since then, the rebel army’s numbers have drastically declined.
Almost a decade later, the controversial peace talks are regularly on the front page of the papers. Colombians are still grappling with what that peace will cost – and how to stop the corruption that has made it always feel just out of reach. My students will inherit these heavy problems when they’re old enough, but each of them will lovingly gush about why Colombia is so uniquely wonderful; some might interpret this as having blinders on, but instead, it simply amazes me.
Based on Colombia’s history, one can easily imagine a miserable, fearful, and negative culture. That certainly feels like some Americans’ reactions to recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels as Republican presidential candidates for the 2016 election Cruz and Trump cry for closed borders to refugees and the unconstitutional monitoring of Muslim communities.
The happiest people
Yet Colombians I’ve met have been nothing but warm and proud – welcoming and smiling, in spite of their country’s heartbreaking history of violence, terrorism, and warfare.
The first questions Colombians ask me when they find out I’m a foreigner are, “Are you happy here?” and “Do you like Colombia?”
Hotel concierges ask me to tell my friends about the magic of Colombia, and taxi drivers describe the soothing breeze in Tayrona National Park and mandate I visit.
I’ve been invited to homemade meals, and I’ve been given free rides in the rain. I’ve been lent a bicycle for a morning, and my doorman enthusiastically helped me with a project for school (which included him rapping nonetheless).
If there is anything Colombian culture can teach travelers, it’s how, in spite of great injustices and tragedies, we all still get to decide how they alter us – for better or worse.
But, is it Safe?
Colombia’s violent reputation lingers; it’s echoed in my inbox every time I get a question about traveling to Colombia: “Is it safe?” or “What are the chances of getting kidnapped?” My answers to these questions are forthright: you won’t “find” safety anywhere; peril is everywhere – even in your hometown.
Tragedy could strike in Colombia, but it could also strike in Paris, Brussels, or New York City. We can change the colors of our Facebook profile pictures all we want, but it doesn’t change the fact that hatred and ignorance is thriving, and that every time we are confronted with violence; we have a choice to grow fear or grow hope.
As a traveler in Colombia, I’ve found a resiliency I want to carry home with me. This is the beauty of traveling and living in different cultures and histories and exactly why travelers shouldn’t be afraid to continue seeing the world.
Colombia hasn’t found a magic formula for peace, but they have shown me what it looks like to rally, to reject fear, and to preserve hope. And it’s not naïve – it’s working. Medellín went from one of the most dangerous cities in the world to the world’s most innovative city in the span of only 20 years.
The resiliency of the Colombian people is a model for all, and one thing is certain; I can’t wait to see what my students will cultivate in the next 20 years.
Image credit: LotharTroeller.tk