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 On Closing Doors Softly

Lessons Learned From Colombia
Friendship Force Exchange: Houston & Dallas, TX to Bogota
by John Whaley

NOTE: Most of this article was published by The Dallas Morning News - in the North Dallas/Richardson Neighbors section - in two installments: on Sept 15 and 22, 2007, along with several photos from the exchange.

“Yeeowwwwww,” yelped my Colombian host as I closed the car door. Oh no, what did I do now? It had just been a day or two since my wife and I arrived in Bogotá on a Friendship Force exchange, and already I’m in hot water. And then it dawned on me. I had grabbed the door and shut it like an American would, without giving it a second thought. It’s not like I hadn’t been warned before the trip about this little cultural difference. But I just wasn’t thinking when it came to car doors.

It was a good lesson learning how to mindfully close car doors and show respect for both car and driver. I got very good at it. Now that I’m back in the U.S., I still try to practice - when I remember. While Colombians and Americans have much in common, it was these little differences that made the trip so interesting.

COLOMBIA ES PASION was written in huge script across one wall of the El Dorado airport. You couldn’t miss it as you went through customs to retrieve your luggage. While the airport was a pretty dispassionate place we soon found examples of that famous Colombian passion. The Bogotá Friendship Force Club gave us a little introduction with their welcome party. 

We were soon swept up in a whirl of dancing to the rhythms of the Cumbia, and were introduced to all the club members who seemed dedicated to showing us a good time. Inhibitions melted away as we quickly learned how to party Colombian style. Colombia has a youthful population and love is in the air. I won’t soon forget the couple lying entwined together on the front lawn of the 16th century church in a neighboring town. What goes on in Colombia stays in Colombia!

Colombians are looking good. In the capital city where temperatures stay on the cool side, women dress in pant suits and men are often seen in suits or sports jackets. Everybody is slim. They care about their appearance. Compared to what I’m used to seeing, it is very attractive. Hey, there is an alternative to t-shirts, shorts and sandals.
May I also put in a plug for the lovely women who seem to abound in this country known for its beauty pageant winners. Our host on the extension trip to Cartagena told me that his son’s friend declared that he could never work in this humid coastal town: “The place is too hot and the women are too beautiful.”

We Americans like to shake hands. Colombians like to hug, kiss and hold hands. We got our first introduction to their hands-on approach after we arrived at the airport. There was a swarm of people outside the terminal waiting for friends and relatives. We spotted a “Bienvenidos a John y Wendy” sign held by our exchange hostess, Fabiola. As Wendy approached her she warmly held my wife’s hand and led her through the crowd to the awaiting car. It was a sweet gesture of friendship. We soon got into the act and were hugging and kissing (one cheek only) family members and friends. They are very affectionate people and want to show you how much they love you. I must say it’s contagious.

I felt safe. Now I feel safe in Dallas, and so it’s not a difference per se. But the impression in the U.S. is that Colombia is still a dangerous place. The news we receive seems to report only the worst. Some friends couldn’t stifle their looks of worry after they learned of our plans. But the reality was completely different. Yes, there is definitely a security presence in Bogotá. Our host in fact was a retired police commandant, and the police and army maintain a strong presence in the country. However, everyone we saw seemed to go about their business without fear. We certainly didn’t experience any incidents although there were a few street vendors in Cartagena overly eager to sell us something. Of course we weren’t planning to wander off into the Amazon jungle where the drug traffickers hold sway. We learned, though, that safety has improved greatly in Bogotá as well as Cali and Medellin, formerly known for their infamous drug cartels.

With a population of eight million people, traffic in metropolitan Bogotá is always interesting. Traffic lights seem optional, stop signs are ignored. Traffic lanes are a quaint idea, but never taken seriously. Yet we rarely saw an accident. Vehicles there are much smaller than the super-sized SUVs in the U.S., and without doubt more maneuverable. Yet, there’s a well defined spatial sense about just how close drivers can get without bumping into one another. I’d estimate one inch clearance was considered sufficient. Sometimes it was best just to close your eyes.

Our hosts wanted to share with us the geography, cultures and points of interest in different parts of Colombia. They were eager to have us back to explore the delights of San Martin, Armenia and Cali, to sample the eternal spring in Medellin and the coastal town of Santa Marta with its nearby indigenous communities. They seemed to emphasize geography more than we Americans, and it was easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm about the different regions of their country.

You’ve heard of assisted living. We got to see it first hand with Luz, our host couple’s maid. Every day Luz cooked the meals, cleaned the apartment, washed the clothes, and probably a lot of other things as well. We wanted to take her back to Dallas with us. Household help is common among middle class Colombians, and makes life very pleasant. The problem, of course, is that there are still so many poor people willing to fill these low paying service jobs. Why can’t this change? Political corruption was the response from one Colombian acquaintance. Whatever the reason the problem is large. I heard about 75% of the population live in poverty. No doubt this undermines the stability and economic vitality of the country. 

There were many other differences we spotted, and some we’ll experiment with now that we’re home, like heating up milk for the coffee. What was most special, though, was becoming a member of our Bogotá family for one short but intense week. We shared their joys and sorrows. We went house hunting with them. Soon we didn’t mind seeing each other in underwear and nightgowns. We may as well have been Uncle John and Aunt Wendy. How else could you build this kind of relationship with people who were complete strangers only a few weeks ago. It is testimony to the power of friendships and to the goodwill that is spread around the world thanks to Friendship Force.

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