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Colombia, Paradise of Patriots

I’ve never understood patriotism. It’s always seemed to me the seed for hatred, violence and war. To take pride in one’s own country is a short step away from taking pride in one’s race – if each country in the world believes itself to be superior to all the rest then there’s bound to be some conflict. After all, they can’t all be right.

I’ve never understood patriotism. It’s always seemed to me the seed for hatred, violence and war. To take pride in one’s own country is a short step away from taking pride in one’s race – if each country in the world believes itself to be superior to all the rest then there’s bound to be some conflict. After all, they can’t all be right.

So I found it a little discomforting lately in Medellin, Colombia when people would ask me ‘So, how are you enjoying our paradise?’ I’d look around at the congestion, the concrete buildings and the junkies out cold in the gutter and wonder what on earth they were talking about. Paradise would appear to be a state of mind.

But then i began to see it as a love of one’s home place and the whole thing took on a different light. In poor countries across the world people plot their escape to the moneyed continents of the US, Europe or the Far East, cursing their miserable luck to be born on the wrong side of the borderline.

So it’s quite refreshing to hear Colombians who will launch into thirty minute speeches about why you’d be crazy to want to live anywhere else. This isn’t an entirely natural phenomenon, though, the government realized some time ago than in order to keep their country healthy and mobile. they had to keep their best minds and workers in the country. Thus the schools teach the kids to be proud of where they come from and dissuade them from setting off in search of dollars.

A sense of patriotism probably does hold a country together, especially in times of war, but there are always people in whom the urge to roam dies hard. These are the individuals who don’t consider it a duty to serve their country and reason that their only responsibility is to their own happiness. Hoping that better opportunities lie on the other side of the border fence they look for a way out.

Thing is, Colombia is a long way from anywhere. The US is 6 countries north and though it’s not too difficult to get the money together for a plane ticket somewhere, few embassies are exactly enthusiastic about giving a visa to a Colombian. When your country tops the list for kidnapping, banditry and drug production, it hardly does wonders for your reputation.

Some just get their head down and study. Provided they achieve a fluency in English or another major European language there’s always the possibility of winning a scholarship. A university education in Colombia is available to most as course fees correspond to the wealth of the area in which you live. My girlfriend was abandoned at the age of 12 and so had no support to help her through her education. She took a room in a crack neighborhood and waited tables for a hellish three years while she obtained her diploma in psychology. If she improves her English then next year she might be studying overseas.

The more astute or reckless might find a business opportunity (legal or otherwise) that gives them a way out. This is of course the land of cocaine and every day people are intercepted at the airport with kilos strapped to their chests or hidden away in the false bottoms of their suitcases. And although the majority of these drug ‘mules’, as they’re known, do get through, it’s pretty much a desperate last resort. If successful, most of the profit is picked up by the cartels who set them up in the first place. If they fail then there can be few more terrifying places in the world to be than rubbing shoulders with the inmates of a Colombian jail.

Of course not everyone chooses to trade in contraband and many teach themselves to make necklaces and bracelets to sell on the streets or the beaches of Central and South America. The competition is pretty intense but Colombians learnt a long time ago that in the survival of the fittest they’d better start working out. The streets of San Jose in Costa Rica are full of these artisans and while they may not be getting rich, they are making a crust away from home.

Colombian women are among some of the most beautiful women in the world and they make the most of it. Look up any marriage agency on the internet and you’ll see that they’re outnumbered only by the Russians. There are thousands of Colombian women hoping to marry foreigners and start a new life abroad. In general the men they’ll be meeting will be twenty years older or more and may not be the most appetizing match. A lot of the women will marry, sweat it out for the minimum two years necessary to get independent legal residence and then file for divorce.

From what i’ve seen of the immigrant communities abroad though, many who end up escaping end up missing it terribly. They find that the food, the people and the customs of their new country don’t meet their expectations and they feel like fish out of water, to use the tired old phrase. I used to feel sorry for the South Americans i saw in London who would enter the metro laughing and joking, only to be shamed into silence by the other morose passengers who never even made eye contact.

In any case, home is never quite forgotten. More money is sent back each year by immigrants to their families across the world than all the international aid put together. And, once established abroad, the escapee is often followed by a string of relations who use him as a springboard for their own flight to freedom.

Many think of leaving but find that love for their country ties them more than they realized. And not everyone wants to think of their home as a sinking ship. As one Colombian friend remarked to me:

“But if we all leave – who will be left?”