On April 1, up to 16,000 Colombians took to the streets to decry corruption and express ongoing dissatisfaction with the peace accords signed with the FARC guerrillas. It was, in many ways, a march against the Colombian political establishment.”
This is an excerpt from a recent report on Huffington Post, outlining the civil unrest in Colombia, along with the people’s frustration regarding the seemingly unending bevvy of corrupt government officials. It’s only a glimpse of the wide spectrum that is the Colombian political scenario. The 2016 Colombian peace accord ended a half-century long armed conflict that killed at least 220,000 people, uprooted more than 6 million, and left some 8 million registered victims. Colombia is still in political turmoil, recovering from the aftermath of what is the longest-running conflict in history. The rest of the world doesn’t know much about the Colombia that exists today as the shadow of its political history veils the vibrant culture and its people.
In order to gain insight from an outsider’s perspective who’s actually experienced daily life in Colombia, we reached out to Shipra Hattangadi, a Mumbai-based student who has been living and teaching in Colombia for the last nine months. Shipra has wanted to visit Colombia ever since she hosted a Colombian exchange student at her parents’ house in Mumbai. “She was in Mumbai for about four days but everything from her attitude to her description of her homeland started my love affair with Colombia,” says Shipra. To see this potential love affair realised, she signed up for an internship program through AIESEC, the global volunteer organisation.
Shipra’s first job with AIESEC led her to Ipiales, which is situated along the border of Ecuador. “Sadly for me, there is nothing Colombian about Ipiales right from the frigid weather conditions to the lack of literally anything fun to do,” She says, “Plus when I finally got to my destination, I had nosebleeds from the high altitude. So, it didn’t really start of all hunky-dory but over the 5 months that I lived there I fell in love with the landscapes, the peace, the language and most of all – the people.”
Shipra is currently teaching English to children between the ages of thirteen and fourteen in Villavicencio. Her average day begins early, leaving little room for recreational activity. She does mention the Colombian affinity for music and physical activity, and how despite her busy schedule, both of these things make their way into her daily life, “Both if these factors are the by-products of the Latin way of living which puts a great deal of importance of the healing power of music and the resurrecting power of being physical fit.”
Despite having a high adult literacy rate (94.58%), Shipra’s experience as a teacher taught her that it was difficult to instil the importance of education in the growing children of Colombia. “In India, we are comparatively a little more dedicated and respectful to our education which makes teaching a less tedious activity,” she says. “Being a non-native teacher in a country where education is still not worshipped as the way out of a difficult life makes everything a million times more difficult.”
Colombia’s complicated political situation has made headlines for decades. We’ve all heard about Colombia distantly; perhaps on the news — words such as “dangerous,” “drugs,” and “violent” being thrown around by people who believe that they’re more perspicacious than they are, more informed than they are, and definitely more involved than they are. “Colombia is definitely not the kind of battleground it used to be,” says Shipra. “The best thing about teaching is having the ability to influence the way these children look at the world. I feel like I am empowering a whole new generation to be able to reason, negotiate, debate, have opinions and change their world! Colombia and her people have suffered for decades thanks to violence, home-grown political drama, narcotrafficking, etc. I feel very honoured that I get to play a part (no matter how small) in rebuilding the country.”
According to the Colombia 2016 Crime & Safety Report, the most prevalent threat to Americans and other non-natives in Colombia is street crime. In the nine months that Shipra has spent in the country, she has been mugged once. She says, “Apart from that one-off incident, my experience in the country has always been peaceful, positive and in true Colombian style – has always involved a lot of dancing. The situation politically is still not smooth since there are various different political views clouding the arena.”
Many of us are content harvesting skewed information from unreliable sources and basing our opinions of a place on hearsay. But the story that Colombians and the people who live in Colombia tell is one of a jagged — but not broken — country, whose people are putting the pieces back together bit by bit. It’s a story of hope and change. As Shipra puts it, “One thing that goes without saying is that Colombia is a happy place because, after decades of suffering, nobody wants to miss out on an opportunity to be happy.”