Connections in Colombia

By Jacob Goodwin

I get in an Uber to take a ride from a tony neighborhood of Cali to the airport in nearby Palmira. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this as Uber is technically illegal in Colombia. I begin to engage in one of my favorite pastimes - keeping up my Spanish by talking nonstop to the unsuspecting driver.

But this driver is among the 25% who seems to enjoy the banter. I tell him I am from the United States and that I am going to Bogotá for a couple of days. He tells me he has three children in America who are now citizens. Any time I here a South American use the term America for the United States, I am a little surprised. While living in Argentina, I quickly learned to refer to myself as a North American, or else become the target of an abusive tirade.

The driver was rejected for a tourist visa to visit his children. He wonders if it’s time to try again. We talk about immigration policy. He respects, even believes, that the United States should have a very strict tourist visa policy. I tell him that I think the process can be somewhat arbitrary and unfair. I don’t know whether he’s just being polite, and I wonder if he thinks the same about me. This happens a lot when my conversations get political.

A similar thing happens when I discuss the prospect of drug legalization with a taxi driver from Buenaventura, an important port in the drug trafficking business. We both wonder if there’s any practical solution to drug-related violence.

On another day I am with a friend I recently met. She says something to the effect of, “We treat Americans really well. It’s not like someone comes here from Denmark and we’re all excited about it.” Apologies to all zero of my Danish readers. I doubt anybody could be more kindly welcomed, so I take her at her word. I later meet her family over lunch. The parents do not speak English. Both children in the family speak English very well, and they tell me the parents like listening to it. The older brother talks about attending graduate school in the U.S. In my heart I’d love to help both of these siblings to study in my country. Perhaps selfishly, I wish I could keep them, too.

Then I meet a 22 year-old Venezuelan man at church who only recently came to Colombia in November of 2017. He has a lot to get off of his chest and does most of the talking. He wonders where the best place to go is. He has known nothing but a minimum-wage income from Venezuela, which he says will only buy a half a bottle of Coca-Cola these days. To him everything is so expensive in Colombia, especially utilities and basic services. Is there anywhere a person can start to get on their feet with a minimum wage? He asks me as if I have answers. I don’t. I just try to listen. All I can tell him is that sometimes life’s a pain. Perhaps our struggles are a good way to make us think about how we can do better, but sometimes we are doing all we can.