When did it become so cool to be Colombian?

A few years ago, I was travelling somewhere or other with an Irish girl I’d met. Everywhere we went, she was the centre of attention. People loved her accent, her dark hair, her blue eyes and they always wanted to buy her Guinness. “It’s very cool to be Irish, isn’t it?” I asked her one evening, when she’d managed to fend off a crowd of admirers on the basis that one pint of Guinness has roughly the same amount of calories as an English roast dinner.

“Yeah, it is now,” she said, with that lilt people love so much. “But a few years ago it was definitely very uncool to be Irish. I’m not really sure what changed, but now three-men-in-a-pub jokes are out and St Patrick’s Day is very much in.”

We Brits know what it’s like to be cool and uncool too. There are some places where I’m automatically adored because I carry an imaginary holdall filled with good manners and fair play, stiff upper lips and milk in my tea. Then there are the places where I’m loathed, a sticker-in of noses, a hoity toity colonial with a penchant for pillaging. I’ve travelled to ex-British colonies all over the world (because half the world is an ex-British colony) and my first toe on their soil always falls somewhat tentatively, just in case they’re going to blame me for what my grandparents did, or their grandparents before them.

Now, of course, I live in Colombia and the cool/uncool thing is becoming a lot harder to pin down. When I first moved here, it was definitely uncool to be Colombian. You could barely get beyond immigration. I’ll never forget the near stand-up row I had with a border bully in Miami, who saw me in the “just landed from Bogotá” line and assumed I must be funding my chocolate and red wine addiction with an epic cocaine empire. “You’re a writer?” he said, with a smirk. “In Bogotá?”

Then there were my English friends and family. The cocaine jokes were abundant there too (much like the substance itself. They even have it in the water in England) and the concern and confusion was yet more widespread. Why on Earth would I choose to live in Colombia? Did I dare to walk the streets? Do they even have the Internet?

But something has changed, my loves, something has changed and I’m not sure whether we should fear it or embrace it.

It all started in my local supermarket. Not Carulla. My local supermarket in England, where I happened across a delicious-looking offering with “Colombian Coffee Cake” emblazoned proudly across the front. We know Colombian coffee has long been revered in England… but was it ever up there with Victoria Sponge?

And the comments were different too. Now all people want to know is whether Colombians really do dance as well as their football team, whether James will continue his form at Real, how Falcao will fare at United. They want to know whether the travel tips and “must visits” they read in the newspapers all the time are really true. Is Colombia honestly one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world? Is Bogotá really as bike friendly as everyone says? (Don’t answer that)

It’s nice, you know. The cocaine and crime thing was really getting quite tiring and it’s not like it’s up to the average Colombian to defend a situation over which they have very little control. They just want to go on holiday, or study and work abroad, without some smart ass raising his eyebrows and wondering what they’re really carrying in that case.

But I dunno. Everything comes at a price, doesn’t it? The bigger they are, the harder they fall. We knew where we were when no-one knew the truth, when only Colombians and a few brave travellers could see the gem hidden in plain sight. But what now? There’s only one thing I’ve heard about being cool. And that’s that it ain’t no piece of cake. 

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.

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15 Comments

  1. Miguel

    But wait… is that ‘gentrification’ all that bad that we need sigh about it? For me it’s a bloody welcome difference, after having been received with cocaine-related jokes in Switzerland and having questions asked about why my skin is not darker if I am Colombian, to much nicer and complimentary comments all around about James, Falcao, dancing, party-loving, loud Colombians… Bloody brilliant, I say!!!

  2. pathlesstravels

    Before World Cup when I told people I live part of the year in bogota there ask “why, are part of the drug cartel?” But ever since World Cup it has been a “Cool, I want to visit Colombia. Have any tips?” I know exactly where you are coming from.

  3. Ceri

    Before I started travelling, the image I’d always had of Colombia was that it was super dangerous. When I moved to Mexico, I suddenly met a ton of teachers who’d all worked in Colombia before. It definitely changed my image of it and, yeah, it’s almost like THE place to be living in South America now.

  4. Miguel

    I twitted and posted this blog entry on FB. And still am amazed by how much you are right on this. I’ve just come back from Phnom Penh after a week of working with people from one of the ministries there, and every time I mentioned being Colombian there was a smile and a nod, unlike the sideways smiles and the ‘knowing’ nods I used to get before. So, the world cup really did it for this time around!

  5. Charles Lemos

    I think the defining moment was Operación Jaque (and I’m not an Uribista) but at that moment Colombia was on the world’s center stage getting things done. It was a wow moment where billions of people simply watched something out of a Hollywood movie. I mean pulling that off showed how far Colombia had come.

    But perhaps that transition came earlier. As a Colombian who has traveled extensively and exclusively on his Colombian passport, I was asked more than once by custom officials if I knew Pablo Escobar. Then in 1998 I went to Cambodia and I was asked if I knew el Pipe Valderrama. One of the shocks of my life. Now I get comments about Shakira and James Rodriguez. I was even asked a few times why though not in immigration why I didn’t have a Sophia Vergara accent. So clearly Colombia is often defined by the larger than life personalities that the country has produced.

    I have never been this cool nor so proud to be a Colombian.

  6. Jazid Contreras (@abacachito)

    Recently, I visited the UK and I was gladly surprised by the positive comments I received when I said to people that I was Colombian. Of course, I got a few cocaine/mafia jokes, but people also talked to me about football and Gabo and coffee and good things that make my country famous. That was cool.

  7. Jon.de Gonzalez

    I am London born of an English mother and Colombian father. I have lived in England all my life and have never, ever heard anything positive said by anyone here about Colombia. The lack of knowledge about the Country is staggering. When asked where do you get your name from, the answer is always followed by… was he a drug baron? or similar inane question. After nearly Sixty years of this it becomes tedious, but I will always answer with the truth as I am Proud of my family roots that that have been in that land for 500 years. I hope that peace will happen and the world may see Colombians for who they really are Proud hard working, friendly peaceful people.

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