colombia, sin divisiones (without divisions)

Last week during a trip to Bogota, Colombia for work, I helped organize and participated in a workshop for our employees related to effective communication. I learned a lot during the 3-hour session, facilitated by an organizational coach, but one thing he said really stuck with me: differences are a given, but divisions are a decision. While we were discussing this concept in the context of our particular corporate environment, it’s directly applicable to life outside of work and I realized just how much the Colombian culture embodies this statement. This was reinforced by a group “ice breaker” activity with the coach where he asked everyone to share something about themselves that no one else in the room already knew. This exercise could have been very silly and superficial, but with absolutely zero prompting, every single person willing volunteered deeply personal and often touching details about his or her life. The whole experience was quite emotional and instantly brought everyone closer together, thus breaking down any invisible walls that existed just a few minutes prior.

While this was only my second trip to the South American country, it only fortified my first impression and every positive comment I have heard from others. The Colombian people are incredibly warm and inviting and despite cultural differences, they make foreigners (at least in my experience) feel welcome. They truly exemplify the best of the “Latin” culture and everything I love about traveling south of the boarder. Especially the food…

Colombian food varies depending on which part of the country you are visiting, but one thing is consistent: you will never go hungry. The food and spices are as diverse as the people themselves and I can now say definitively that after only a short week in the country I’ve had some of the most memorable meals of my life in Colombia. My colleagues insisted on a night out at Andres Carne de Res, a famous tourist restaurant/club notable for its meat (various options scatted among its 64-page menu!), dancing, and cheeky atmosphere. It’s an eclectic mix of disco balls; heart-shaped signs pointing out restrooms, the bar, and other random characters; colorful recycled materials ranging from bottles to bicycles; and a wait staff ready to sing at the drop of a hat. In fact, I myself was serenaded by a band welcoming me to Colombia as I was draped in a sash with the Colombian flag and a paper crown. My favorite dish I tried had to be the arepas de choclo – a flatbread made of ground maize dough or cooked flour stuffed with a sweet corn filling. It was accompanied by an avocado dipping sauce and the whole bite literally melted in my mouth. It’s easy to fill up on these rich appetizers but it’s worth saving space for the meat. Even our Argentine colleague approved, and for those who don’t know, Argentina is considered the South American meat capital.

My entire culinary experience at Andres was magnificent. But it wasn’t just a gastronomic party. By about 11pm, the five-floor restaurant opened its retractable rooftop, cleared some tables, and the dance party began. The music was a mix of primarily Latin pop with some more familiar U.S. and Euro hits in the mix. One of my co-workers asked me to dance to a salsa song (or rather, challenged me to see if the “Gringa” could hold her own). I was fairly confident as I had danced salsa many times before, but I was quickly humbled by the smooth moves of my Colombian counterpart. As soon as my dance partner changed up the usual steps, it was stumbling over my own feet and trying desperately not to crush his. He continuously stopped me mid-step to remind me to stop trying to lead and surrender control. Talk about art imitating life!

I left Colombia feeling invigorated by a spirit and energy that’s not always present in my day-to-day life. And while I also left a little sick (note to travelers: do not eat the fried fish lunch on the island boat tours off Cartagena), I couldn’t help but think just how much my trip reinforced some of the keys to true happiness. First, it’s imperative that we establish connections with others instead of creating divisions as we so often do, both consciously and subconsciously, out of fear of the unknown. Based on my observations and interactions with Colombians, in general they have a way of making you feel like you belong and seek out a common interest. The idealist in me dreams of a world where that perspective was the default for everyone when establishing relationships. Wouldn’t we all be better off coming from a place of openness rather than being protective and emotionally inaccessible?

Lesson number two from Colombia: be authentic but don’t take yourself too seriously. What made Andres (the restaurant) so memorable was it’s dichotomous message that flamboyant and ostentatious are welcome qualities as long as it’s backed up by some damn good food and music that will knock your socks off.

And finally, message number three from my salsa lesson: let go of control, slow down, feel more, and think less. Isn’t dance a great metaphor for life? All I can say is: a.) easier said than done and b.) work in progress…

Oh, and c.) when is my next trip to Colombia?

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