You can Eat the Whole Cow (and Nine Other Things I learned in Colombia)

From beautiful Caribbean beaches to snow-capped mountains, from the horrors of narco-paramilitarism to the honest friendliness of every normal citizen, from indigenous heritage to Spanish colonial influences to African traditions, Colombia is a country of contrasts. While at first it can make you feel like an autistic person under bombardment of sensations, over time there are some lessons emerging. Here are ten of them.

1. Life is short.
When I came here nine years ago, Colombia was having the highest murder rate in the world. Since then, violence has gone down a bit thanks to a decent military strategy, but was rising again in 2009, due to completely flawed social politics and a gross misunderstanding of the drug trade dynamics. In the 90s and early 2000s, displaced people arrived on a daily basis in the village I was living in, and often had ugly stories to tell.
But it was not only crime and conflict. Car accidents, natural disasters, poverty, and bootleg booze all took their casualties. When I lived here in that year, it was the first time I got in contact with death so closely – and at the same time with people wanting to live life to the fullest, as long as they could.

2. The government doesn’t decide about holidays. The people do.
In an attempt to stimulate internal tourism, most national holidays in Colombia have been moved to the ensuing Monday, creating 3-day weekends for travelers. While this rule at first seemed just stupid to me, in reality it will likely double your free time: On the real holiday, many people just won’t go to work or leave early, and meet in the neighborhood to drink, dance and celebrate. On the weekend, the party continues. Only on the official Monday holiday everybody will relax to be fit for the following 4-day work week.

3. For work, there’s always tomorrow.
Closely related, you don’t generally have to get a job done today, if you can do it tomorrow. While it’s important to meet friends and have a good time now, work generally can be postponed. This is not to say that Colombians are slackers – quite the contrary, many people here have two or even three jobs and work harder than most Europeans I know. But they know when to stop, they have their priorities set, and they have learned not to care too much about the minutiae that make many people around the world go crazy at their workplaces.

4. Rum shouldn’t taste like raisins.
Rum has suffered of bad fame for too many years. Horrible blends are often used to cook or to bake cakes, and only if you really push it, you may prepare a Cuba Libre with a mediocre bottle of Havana Club or even Bacardi. Colombians, in contrast, drink their dark rums pure and often without ice. While the blends here aren’t the best of the world, they certainly are very drinkable, and they opened my mind to taste other brands, like the spectacular Zacapa Centenario from Guatemala. While not a cheap thing to have, good rum is one of my favorite spirits today.

5. Siesta is not sacred, but you can have it anyway.
When I came here, I was expecting every store to shut down at noon and see a lot of people with big hats having their siesta. This, it appears, is a myth. On the other hand, almost nobody will work during the hottest hours of the day. If you want to sleep, you may do so – if not, just hang around for an extensive lunch with friends or colleagues, have some cups of coffee, and continue with work once you feel like it.

6. Tourists suck.
Of course there are many exceptions to this gross generalization, but some forms of tourism can be quite problematic for a country. With every arrogant “gringo” coming here, Colombia’s world-famous hospitality goes down a bit. If the recent trend continues, I fear encountering Colombians being as suspicious of foreigners as most people in Guatemala already are.
So please, please, please, if you come here, treat people with some respect and don’t walk topless into their restaurants hitting on their 15-year old daughters. Don’t think money can buy you everything.

7. Money doesn’t matter.
Talking about money: It doesn’t matter, really. As I wrote recently, I have been able to live a happy life in Colombia (including travels, great food, lots of ice cream and the above-mentioned rum) on a $200 budget.
What I didn’t write in that post is that those were the good times. In 2001, I actually lived on an unvoluntary banana diet for some weeks, because I didn’t have the money to afford anything better. While I would get breakfast and lunch at work, dinner time always led to a mathematical breakdown with fruits being my main currency: If I bought a cheap meal, I would spend the money that could also buy me 30 bananas. 30 bananas were a lot of food. So I opted for the bananas.
While I was happy to leave that phase of my life behind, it also was quite a lesson: I lost fear about starving, because in the end, bananas are cheap and easy to get, and happiness really doesn’t depend all too much on money.

8. You don’t need to speak a language to communicate.
When I arrived here, my Spanish was enough to say my name and ask for the bathroom. So I spent my first time in the country just learning the language and trying to get around. After four or five months, things started to get easier and easier, and when I left after a year, I had learned a new language.
What’s the fun thing about this experience is that I also learned to communicate without using spoken language at all. Hands, feeds, and smiles help a lot, and just by throwing in some words from a small dictionary I always carried around, I was able to have a great time, meet many people, and get to know a lot of new places and things.

9. You can eat the whole cow. (And ants are tastier than you’d expect.)
I’m not a big fan of meat. In Germany, I would eat the random steak, spaghetti bolognese, and brown bread with salami, and that was pretty much it. While I was totally fine with that from time to time, eating animals each and every day never appealed me.
Quite a change to arrive in Colombia, then. Only here did I learn in practice that you don’t just eat the filet of a cow. Brain, tripes, lungs, and kidneys all can be put to good use, and while I sincerely still struggle with finding pleasure in it, I think it’s a good lesson in how to put resources to real use.
I also had some more pleasant surprises on the culinary side, for example when I first tasted fried “culona” ants from the Colombian department of Santander. While having a strange appearance, they make a great snack and got recently on sale in delicacy stores around the world – well-deserved so!

10. Everybody can be your teacher.
From elderly fishermen to presidential candidates, from pious nuns to satanic black metal singers, from leftist guerrilla supporters to right-wing undercover agents from the army, I noticed while living in Colombia that everybody can be your teacher.
Never before did I get access to people from so diverse social backgrounds, but once I did, I started to learn more than I could have imagined. Apart from practicalities and philosophical insights, the most important lesson for me was to be open to the ideas and thoughts of anybody. While I often wouldn’t agree and sometimes even fiercly discuss with the people I met, everybody could teach me at least something on the way. Since then, I will never let pass the opportunity of hearing the thoughts of others and trying to learn from them.

What lessons did you learn while living in another country or when moving to another town? Also, what recipes can you recommend me when it comes to eating “the whole cow”? It would be great to hear from you in the comments or by mail (fabian[at]!