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Students Leading Extraordinary Lives in Emerging Markets

Preparing students to lead extraordinary lives is something we do exceptionally well at Loyola University Chicago and the Quinlan School of Business. Among the many things I find so refreshing about the Quinlan School is the number of students who enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to immerse, engage, learn, discern and transform in emerging markets, and thus to jumpstart that process. This blog focuses on some curious, conscientious, can-do students who have taken the plunge – from Cambodia to Colombia – and who are committed to leading extraordinary lives.

To offer a glimpse into a unique learning opportunity, for the next few weeks or so some students with whom I am working will share thoughts in this space and elsewhere on their experiential learning in Colombia. I should mention that they already have successfully completed MARK 561, “Comparative Consumer Behavior and Marketing in Emerging Southeast Asia”. Transformative experiences in that course inspired a few of them to approach me last November, to ask if I would teach a second immersion course. While that was not possible this academic year, a conversation about independent study unfolded.

Several discussions and meetings about academic and methodological rigor, place, objectives, logistics, responsibilities and outcomes ensued over the next several weeks; we eventually decided that Colombia would be the country of focus. Note that I still had not signed-on as supervisor and I said that no academic credit would necessarily be forthcoming. Undaunted, the students soldiered-on, collectively allocating an impressively large number of hours to readings, and Friday-night meetings and discussions with guest speakers and me. Their energy and enthusiasm were remarkable. In addition to our information search, chats, meetings and presentations, the students worked online with a few of my colleagues at three Colombian universities, and with authorities in various sectors to arrange activities and seminars in country, and to set a full itinerary. They increasingly took ownership of the learning process, in coordination with several scholars, business leaders, government officials and policy analysts in both Colombia and the US. In sum, through participative learning and supervised independent study, they are truly leading extraordinary lives and they will earn academic credit.

Depending on the outcomes of this initiative, which will run through June, I am hopeful this participatory and guided learning experience might become a template or prototype for an honors seminar, offered to some of our leading graduate students, at least for those with interests in emerging markets. The evidence thus far suggests it can be a unique and valuable opportunity to learn, and an important catalyst from personal transformation to engaged action, commensurate with St. Ignatius’s encouragement “to go forth and set the world on fire”.  Below, please see some reports — essentially, cut-and-paste entries — shared by the students, as they blaze their trail and reflect on their experiences.

Participants:

Aggeliki Gikas, MBA with an Operations Management Concentration and Business Ethics Certificate Candidate – May 2015

Sarah Haque, MBA with Finance and Strategic Management Concentration Candidate – December 2015

Katherine Kasch, MBA with Marketing Concentration Candidate – May 2015

Gregory Lizak, MBA with Marketing Concentration – May 2015

Lisa Marks, MBA with Strategic Management Concentration and Business Ethics Certificate Candidate – May 2015

Justine Petcoff, MBA with Strategic Management Concentration and MSA Candidate – May 2015

 Colombia Team photo

From left: Lisa, Kate, Justine, Greg, Aggeliki, Sarah

Group Bio:

In the spirit of Jesuit education that Loyola University Chicago provides, these six program participants have been inspired by the social justice mindset of Loyola as well as the international travel opportunities offered through the Quinlan School of Business Marketing classes. After discovering a love for both of these areas of study, program participants were inspired to continue learning about business and underserved populations in additional parts of the world, specifically Colombia.

Colombia remains a disenfranchised country; as business students, the program participants believe that business is a vehicle for positive change in Colombia. Program participants see ourselves as academic catalysts to Colombia, building on our academic experiences at the Quinlan School of Business and the mission of Loyola University Chicago. We have a personal sense of accountability as Quinlan School of Business students that what we say we believe in and value must be the way we operate. Therefore, program participants are excited to undertake this special opportunity to leverage Professor Shultz’s 25 years of experience in devastated and recovering economies, and to engage in on-the-ground, experiential learning in Colombia.

Blog tagline:

“When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.”

Peter Hans Kolvenbach S.J.

 

KATE, arrival Bogota: The whole group has made it to Bogota, Colombia. Reuniting in a foreign country feels natural for this group, and there is so much excitement in the energy between us that we spent those first few hours all talking at the same time and somehow hearing everything said. There were group hugs and many high fives.

Greg and I, the stragglers, were greeted to the hotel with a full on surprise party. Balloons and a “Bienventdos” banner were mysteriously procured and there was wine and cheese for the celebration.

I’ve been here long enough and with enough post flight cognizance to only make a few observations. The people here have many dogs, which I think is a wonderful sign. Having the means to take care of an additional family member, and they are treated like family. The people are so kind. They look at me a bit funny when they realize I have almost no Spanish (I’m learning!) but they don’t walk away from the challenge. While there has been a significant language barrier, each person we meet is so patient and willing to stick with it until we’re both understood. Some of our best experiences so far have been this dance of hand gestures, phrase books and watching Sarah just magically make it work.

The mountains surrounding the city are gorgeous. Photos won’t do a city like Bogota justice. The airport is gorgeous, there a clear division of wealth evident on every street corner. Small business line the streets and I am interested to learn if, similar to Vietnam, the people who run them live in back.

The first song Greg and I heard on the radio was Taylor Swift, so we’ve learned that no matter how far from home, American Pop Music will haunt you.

A long day of travel and an early wake up this morning, we are excited to face the day. A driving tour and a visit to an organization focusing on renewal in distressed communities. After a night in very a affluent neighborhood of our hotel, I am eager to see this.

This afternoon we will try our hand at some of the must see tourist destinations, perhaps the Gold Museum, perhaps the Salt Cathedral.

And sitting here at breakfast Taylor Swift is once again on the radio. A good omen for the day.

KATE: Sunday we took in Bogota. Our guides and translators were Felipe and Patricia, a modern Colombian couple. They met here and have spent time in the US. He, as a Fullbright scholar at Harvard and she, as a youth in Maryland and at graduate school at Northeastern in Boston.

They took us to Ciudad Verde, a low income housing project on the outskirts of Bogota to the suburb of Soacha. The drive there took us through Bogota on Sunday morning, calm traffic by Bogota standards, but still a bumpy and nail biting drive. We saw life in Bogota the way it is most often lived and were filled with questions on the hour drive as Felipe diligently provided answers. Most relevant for our journey was this history and purpose of Ciudad Verde. As Bogota has grown quickly over the last 20 years, as the city and country emerge from violence and corruption, they have no space to make room for the tremendous growth. Because many (maybe 40%) of the cities 8MM people do not earn a living through “legitimate jobs” it is very hard to get credit or leases and many find themselves making do as they can. Communities pop up in messy and disorganized patterns as homes are needed and squatters become community establishers, which makes city planning and commuting almost impossible. The people who decide to claim then sell off this land “slum lords” build first floors which they sell and the owners build up to expand the house or create additional room to rent out. These developments look like a cake that may topple over, they are apartments built on apartments and still going up. The roads are frequently unpaved and entrepreneurs line the streets selling what they can. When we cross the boarder to Soacha where the development emerges, the scenery changes. This development, which will eventually house 200,000 families – 200,000 families! – is a low income housing development project with a price cap of USD $45,000. The intention is to provide a house for those who cannot otherwise buy one, but it goes beyond being able to afford the cost. Financing here is different, less rigid, there is flexibility of types of income meaning a street vendor can get it here without having to prove income in the same way someone who works as a bus boy. There are day-cares at no cost, there are schools, playgrounds, walking and cycling paths. There are parking garages and green spaces. Each house or apartment is completely customizable, sold as unfinished spaces to keep the cost low – we wondered how many were living in these still unfinished homes. Even by public housing standards the costs of these spaces are out of most price limits. We were, however, inspired by what we saw, different from Chicago Public housing in so many ways. They are owned by those who live in them, there is pride of ownership. We saw both model units and listened to the sales pitch. The marketing and selling of these spaces was very good, providing a gateway to each prospective buyer of the life they could have. Pictures of the perfect Colombian families, impeccable design taste, you could almost smell the baking cookies. The developers were so welcoming to us, they took us to see a unit that was ready to be occupied. We admired this transparency and while the reality is different, we were pleased to see that it wasn’t impossible to see that they were successful in implementing the plan, maybe without the cookies. On the way back we drove through a very poor part of Bogota, Bosa. Felipe had wanted to show us a more dramatic differentiation of how much of Bogota does live. All of them unable to afford the low income homes we had just seen. Street vendors, old buildings never properly built. Trash and stray dogs everywhere. Roads, Felipe explained, that had been planned 50 years ago and never built. This we learned, was the second poorest stratification of Bogota’s class system. What does the poorest look like?

Riding the bus back through the city, we discussed this common idea we find in the world of North vs South. We thought of Berlin vs Munich, Chicago’s North vs South side. There seem to be parts of these places that ignore or avoid what they find in the south. As we drove, the city became increasingly comfortable and hospitable by our American standards.

I asked Patricia if she felt safe in Bogota. She paused and delved into a description of the cloud of paranoia that surrounds her and the city all the time. She said it’s not been that long since it was very dangerous and that she is always looking over her shoulder. When I asked “have you ever been robbed or attacked?” she paused and said “no actually” then, “once I think I had my cell phone stolen.” She looked at me and said “the violence will be with us forever.” I hope not.

On a positive note of discovery, we continue to learn more about ourselves and each other. Conversations are punctuated with, “I could never do this as well as you do” and immediately followed up with “are you kidding, I could never do that like you do.” A consistent revelation of the immense pride, trust and respect for each other which is, in the end, what got us into this incredible experience in the first place. We must pause and reflect on our good fortune, of not only material and quality of life, but experience and company as well.

Felipe and Patricia joined us for lunch, nay took us for lunch, to Fulanitos. They served dishes that are popular in Cali, their favorite. They ordered almost everything on the menu, and fear not, we ate with abandon. The conversation and food put distance between our lives and what we had seen that morning. Our walk back through Zona Rosa had us all jumping excitement. There were bars, shops, restaurants, and two Bogota Beer Companies! We quickly made an agreement that we would have some fun there and decided to return later in the evening. We walked home through stretches of beautiful homes with vegetation growing on roofs, off balconies, down brick buildings. We saw children playing and dogs taking themselves for walks, their owners strolling a dozen paces back. Returning to the hotel we vowed naps, but ten minutes of lying down left us all wanting the sun back. We came to a coffee shop where we currently find ourselves excitedly discussing our day and dissecting our scribbled notes, where once again, we return our somber thoughts to what we have seen.

Last night we ventured to the Bogota Beer Company for a few cervezas at the end of a good day. I wonder if I’ve ever seen a group of people so happy. To quote Justine “I haven’t laughed that hard in years.” We reminisced the day and raised our glasses to the fact, for the fiftieth time, that we were actually here! Somehow this continues to be hard to believe. So much writing, so much reading, so much discussion, so much support from Professor Shultz and friends, and so much convincing our families has led us to Bogota and we can’t believe it. A very fun night had by all, as our giddiness carried us until 10 pm when we could function no more.

We keep saying “today let’s do the touristy stuff” but our education and exploration takes us off the beaten path and into the heart of the city. So we say “we’ll try that tomorrow” and so we will.

SARAH: It is our 4th morning here in Bogota and as we sit at breakfast in our hotel, preparing for another full and incredible day, we are recounting our evening before, our days past since we came here. The people we’ve met, the places we’ve been, and the recurring themes. The intensity and complexity that each day carries feels both overwhelming but a feeling that it is not enough. We feel more and more certain that this is only the start of our immersion and understanding of Bogota and Colombia. Each day leads me to believe that one visit cannot suffice. 

 
We are tremendously fortunate to meet some of the most incredible people who lead incredible, meaningful lives and feel such passion for their country that we can’t help to feel passionately too. There are a few things that keep sneaking up on me. The first I must confess are the Andes. No matter how many times I see them surrounding us as I look up, it still takes me by surprise and delight. There is something both humbling and peaceful to have them around us. We learned that there are four ecosystems in Bogota, which means we have much yet to learn about our surrounding environment. One day in the mountains on horseback, one day in the south, living in the north and a visit to surrounding neighborhoods just does not suffice. Fortunately we have a few more days. 
 
The second thing that consistently surprises me is the generosity of everyone that we’ve met. Though we have initially been introduced through this academic journey, our contacts have rapidly become friends. They have shared their time and their thoughts with abandon. The recurring theme here: everyone’s excitement that we, a group of six graduate students, have taken such interest in their country, in the issues and the delights of their country. One that they are each committed to improving through their every endeavor. A banker turned ecotourism company owner who’s wife has created an NGO. An architect who is passionately involved with a massive development project for huge population of displaced peoples in Bogota. A writer/photographer/poet who has created his own NGO. It is clear that each of these individuals want more for their country and their people. The history of the country is complex, and while we feel little difference living in Bogota than living in Chicago in regards to safety. It is clear that this is still somehow a ghost lingering for the Bogotanos of the fear that they have carried for decades. Six years is a short amount of time to forget what the people have struggled with for decades, and in some parts of the country, are still struggling with. So while there is still these recurring conversations of the how modern the city is in which we are residing, and that it is safe and so much to do in most areas, Bogotanos confess, they still look over their shoulder, they still hold their belongings close and keep their eyes open. Yes the way we do in Chicago, but for them it comes from a place of much deeper wounded hearts. There is more to share, yet not enough time. And truth is our minds and hearts are experiencing so much but are still absorbing so much of which we are just beginning to understand.

 

KATE: When I say, “That was the best dinner in my life,” I am usually being hyperbolic. And it’s most often used to describe the food. Today, when I say “last night was the best dinner of my life,” I am not. And while the food was delicious, I refer to the company. Our group had the great fortune of having dinner with two of Colombia’s most amazing young minds. Our first guest is Robert Max Steenkist, an artist by nature and a renaissance man by trade. He has published journals, children’s books, he has established charitable organizations, and his family owns a private school in the region. He is a photographer for work now, we are going to have to find a way to get our hands on his photos. He talks openly and passionately about Colombia and its change, but with an air of sadness. He has certainly not given up, his discussion suggests he never will. Robert told us of Colombian’s distrust of organizations, as he says “they have all failed us, the government, the Red Cross, NGOs, churches.” In that way it is hard to offer help. To do this he suggests, and in our interviews, it is best to present ourselves as us, curious us, rather than students attached to a major university working on a project. Robert will be taking us Wednesday to a coffee Hacienda and bringing us to dinner with many of his friends who work in the industry. We are very interested to hear more about what this major export does for the people and economy here. 

The second, a surprise guest, Jose, is the CEO of Compartamos whom we were trying to meet on Tuesday, but whom we could not due to a conflict of very busy schedules. He is the most charming Colombian man any of us have ever met, with extreme charisma and a self defacing humor that put us all at ease in spite of his great accomplishments. The organization he runs, Compartamos, acts as a filter and a guide for outside investments to make sure they find the right home through proper channels, rather than the corruption that much foreign money finds here.  

These two gentlemen are privileged among the Bogotanos, but they are very aware of it. We further discussed the stratifications of wealth and the challenges the very poor face; housing, jobs, transportation. Once again the importance and neglect of city planning arose. An over-crowded bus system, and roads that are bumper to bumper at every hour of the day, even while most citizens don’t own cars. This will continue to be a massive problem in the country as it grows and attracts further foreign investment. It becomes a concern to those of us who love Bogota that other cities such as Medallion, which have been able to develop an organized and thought-out infrastructure with an efficient train system, will pass Bogota’s growth and attract more international attention. Perhaps, we wonder, a slow down of growth here would allow time to fix some of the current problems.  

In regards to tourism, there is much concern over what kinds of tourists come to a place like Cartagena. The “hedonistic value seekers” seem to be dominating the scene and are bringing rise to less welcome industries at the Caribbean coast. We discussed this in terms of similarity to South East Asia, and discussed ways this could be quelled. Perhaps fast growth of the tourist segments will bring in new types of tourists? Of course this would require the shift in perception that we discuss almost hourly. 

To Robert and Jose, that we are here is of huge importance and they have gone so out of their ways to make us not only feel at home, but to help us understand. Beyond all of that we had fun, we laughed at the table reminding us once again that we share the same planet and we have a responsibility to take care of each other as best we can. 

As dinner neared its end we couldn’t help but hear the dulcet tones of the American tourist at the table next door. I approached her to ask what brought her to Colombia. What happened next surprised both me and Justine. While this woman’s Colombian dinner guests said how excited we were here, asked questions about our project and said they would be interested to read the outcome, she said “there is no bad perception of Colombia in America, that was years ago”. Again, her Colombian friend had interjections but she was very stern in her position on the subject. We thanked them for their time and departed. Justine and I looked at each other in surprise. On a positive note, it is clear that there is much hope for the future of the American perception of Colombia. We also wondered, is this part of the second wave of American tourists?

I write this over breakfast and I am compelled to comment that the things they do with eggs in this country are mysterious and wonderful.

 

KATE: The privilege of taking a class with the view of the Andes mountains is hard to put in to words. Further still, the privilege of being so immersed in the learnings that you aren’t even distracted by the beautiful scenery, impossible! We were given the chance to have a lecture with Professor Andres Barrios Fajardo at the university where he teaches, Universidad de Los Andes. He brought in 9 of the top MBA students currently studying at the institution and we had the chance to learn from both lecture and workshop. The subject was two fold, first the Colombian Consumer, where we learned that there is much opportunity but many daunting challenges in creating and engaging markets around the country due to the financial demographics of the population, lack of urban planning, and true marketing requiring the resources to enter into a trade. Some facts, 44% of Colombian’s live below the poverty line and the informality, or the number of people participating in un-regulated businesses is 49%. This means that half the country is struggling to live day to day on small business operations they run through the power of their social capital, such as fruit stands, flower stands or other vendors. This cycle will be hard to break as the situation is self re-enforcing, as growing or becoming legitimate business in the eyes of the government means abandoning the social family that supports each entrepreneur. We reviewed the Hofstede measurements for Colombia and the USA and tried to find commonalities and differences. We worked in teams to develop marketing plans for a new Colombian car brand.

Second we had presentation from ProColombia, after which we discussed the current tourism campaigns and again in groups what we would do to adjust the campaign to both drive tourism, and provide a benefit for the Colombian people. Many ideas were shared and discussions became more open as we got to know the UniAndes students better. It was inspiring to understand how these Colombian’s see their own country, and how they see ours. Here is some of what they said: “Show the world the real us!” “I urge you to pay attention to our people, that is our most valuable resource.” “Tourism is easy to say but difficult to do.” Much of what we learned today will end up in our final project. It must be said that one of these UniAndes is an American from Boston who did her undergrad at Loyola University Chicago!

Working in groups was so much fun, there has been so much laughter on this trip. While we may have a language barrier, we’re finding the universal language of humor and joy. And, of course, we’re already connected on facebook.

Afterwards, we met the President of the University, Dr Paublo Navas. He is the father of a Loyola / Quinlan classmate and he generously gave us his time to ask us about, of all things, us! He was kind and worldly, you could see how he has come into such a position. He spoke fondly of his country and seemed truly delighted to have us. As a gift he gave us all UniAndes hats, which we received happily. We can’t wait to rock them out in Cartagena and someday, when the sun finally returns, in Chicago.

When we met with the President of the University, I found myself thinking how well connected we have been here, how welcoming everyone has been, and that there is very little chance I would have the opportunity to meet the president of a top University in the United States for any reason!

It must be said that before going to visit UniAndes we trekked to the top of Monserrate which provides beautiful views of the city from 10,431 feet! Quite the elevation, and change since Bogota is only 8,660 feet (which is still very high)! It was magnificent to see the city we have all fallen in love with laid before us, and among such beautiful gardens and statues. We met more Americans up here than anywhere else in the city so far, and we were able to ask them many open questions.

Returning back to the hotel, we had an evening meeting with Leon Trujillo, the Sr Consultant in Territorial Branding at Futurebrand. In his former work he worked with what is now ProColombia to help market the country and now works marketing the whole Latin American region. Here we spoke with someone who was an expert in the very thing we are studying, world perception of Colombia. Some of his best advice on marketing the country was to focus on the good, those who are afraid now will come in time. We all agreed that there needs to be more focus in Colombian marketing on the people and the wonderful culture they export. He is published on this subject, and if it takes google translate, we will figure out how to read it!

A lot was discussed on generational differences here, with a lot of energy around social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. All have the power to move a message faster through informal channels, and the younger generations influence each other more than any brand campaign could. Ultimately, we are part of that word of mouth change and will continue to hashtag our way through Colombia. #Colombia2015 #DecadeofLatinAmerica #ColombiaisMagicalRealism #groupofsix #loyolaquinlanschool.

SARAH: We’ve been up since 5 AM and going to bed now. There is so much yet to digest and articulate appropriately, but until then, I have to say, one thing is clear. Everyone here is over-pouring with things to tell us: History,  current changes, future hopes etc. It’s as if they need us to be people they can talk to. They need someone who will listen. It’s incredible beyond words we can articulate. But I believe you will be so surprised at how much they look to us to help, to change, if anything, just to listen.

That’s it for now. Our day started at 7 AM, at Javeriana, then coffee hacienda and ended with a dinner that lasted hours more than we were able to handle, with coffee hacienda owner, former economist, head of the coffee federation and our dear, dear friend Robert.
KATE:  We are alive and sad to spend our last day in Bogota! After 3 hours of sleep we still have much to do and see before we fly to Cartagena. Professor, this place is Magic!

KATE: My days of my attempted eloquence are over. There is too much to say now, and too little time spent quietly; we are so excited for our last hours in Bogota that even when we have a little time we fill it with something additional.

Yesterday, we were generously hosted by the Jesuit University, Javeriana. We had a breakfast session to discuss with each other and 4 professors, what we are finding in Colombia. From these four knowledgeable people we learned much more of the history of the wars/conflicts (depending who you talk to) and the land and displacement issues that are much of what remains. They taught us about what has been done to try and fix these issues and why those efforts have been unsuccessful. The issues are very complicated and find themselves as root causes for many current issues. What they taught us we followed up on with Robert Max in the afternoon and he was able to provide supporting information and provide the topographical information to help us understand further. This session was incredibly helpful to understand what is happening in Colombia, beyond difficult readings and the surface story presented by media.

This was a very sobering few hours. So many of our conversations have been about the Magic of Colombia, and while this group was not short on passion for the country, it came with a strong reminder and concern over the history and why we are where we are. We discussed the peace discussions that are currently taking place in Cuba, between the left and the Colombian government, while they are not the first, wonderful progress. It was said later, that it is in peace discussions where we learn about the tragedies that have been buried for many years. I was told that if these peace discussions are successful and the former Guerrilla members are integrated into society, it will be the hardest time for the country. Most of the Colombians we have spoken to are eager to forget the past and move on, it was important to take a moment to remember.

The afternoon was spent in heaven. And by heaven I mean at a Coffee Hacienda in Cayunda run by Carlos Edgar Diaz Fifuentes, an economist and former executive of the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers who, in 1985 bought the land and hacienda to learn the things “you can only learn out there”. We received lunch, an International Coffee Economics lesson, learned and saw how the coffee is grown and produced, and walked the most beautiful finca that has ever graced this earth. There is so much more to say on this experience, I will have to take the time to reflect more thoroughly, later! The experience deserves its own blog, book or lifetime.

It was a 2 hour drive out to the finca and we were able to take in the landscape and first hand understand the infrastructure challenges we have learned so much about in the last several days. This two hour drive only took us 40k outside Bogota. While the drive was long, we spent it split between taking in the world outside the windows, and in conversation with each other and with Robert. It was wonderful to see the sites outside the window and see how quickly, once outside Bogota, it becomes a different world.

We had dinner with Jorge Cardenas Guiterrez, an economist who had worked for many years with the Colombian Coffee Federation. He has written about the subject, and even gave us a current article to take back and translate into English as it has all the most recent data. Our dinner took us late into the night, and never failing us, Robert Max translated every word.

Everyone in the group has learned so much, and being part of a smaller of a group has meant each of us has contributed significantly to conversations. We were asked at dinner, you are all so different has that been challenging? The feeling we have is, not challenging yet, but enlightening as we each continue take away something different from each experience. Sharing has allowed us to see things from not only our own eyes, but from our peers as well.

 

SARAH: Traveling to a foreign country for research with 5 classmates, and meeting locals, academics, professionals, and experiencing as much as possible in a short amount of time leaves me with an overwhelming concern about how to absorb everything, all at once. Navigating dynamics and collaborating on just about everything — while also navigating a new place, its people, language and keeping with a tightly packed itinerary — proves to have its delights and challenges. I am fortunate to have such an exceptional group with which to travel and conduct research.

In Bogota we lived in one of the finest hotels in the nicest part of the city while also traveling to the more disenfranchised neighborhoods, the countryside and other areas of town. This we did for five and a half days, with mornings starting as early as 5 AM and ending as late as 2 AM.

Arriving to Cartagena, which was immediately distinct the second we got off the airplane, due its much warmer and humid climate off the Caribbean coast, provided us with a markedly different experience. Our apartment, which we originally believed was a three bedroom villa but turned out to be an apartment in a building just inside the Old Town wall, was more of a single room lofted space. For 6 people who stayed in the nicest hotel in Bogota, where we could call the front desk for our every need this was a bit of a surprise, but truthfully, not unwelcome. In Cartagena, we lived in a building, which is inhabited with mostly residents unlike those we met in our neighborhood in Bogota.

Cartagena offered perhaps a more representative immersion experience. Though a small space for 6 travelers we were able to sit out on the patio (which we did often in our apartment when we were not asleep), and watch the happenings on the street and on the city wall. We were able to buy basic items at the market where locals were buying their cervezas or milk for the day. We could hear the music from the neighboring windows and doors, and on occasion the telephone ring from the apartment next door. We walked out of the complex witnessing people hanging their clothes on their patio, sitting on the steps sharing a coffee with each other or passing by apartments where people were watching their televisions at the end of the workday. We were left to fend for ourselves for breakfast, which usually meant finding an arepa from the man at the arepa cart on the way to our next destination or a cup of mango and pineapple from the woman at the fruit cart. Always in a rush to get to the next meeting we were elated when the Universidad Technologica de Bolivar had coffee and fruit for us, while we spoke with and listened to Professor Pablo Abitbol tell us about the report on ‘Historical Memory’ he was collaborating on. Happy to hear that Merle, the activist to protect certain communities in Cartegena, had a restaurant in her hotel where we could lunch after our meeting. We would be remiss to say we hadn’t been on a mission to try every type of arepa available, though being on the go and living in our apartment made way for even more opportunities to buy them. The close quarters proved at first daunting, but ultimately provided the chance to share our thoughts, research and experiences with each other. As the theme continues, unexpected surprises are good ones, nonetheless.

 

SARAH: “No one can take from you what you’ve danced, what you’ve read and what you’ve traveled.”

I learned today this quote is a common Colombian expression, which seems fitting to hear on my last full day in Colombia. We’ve successfully done all of these things. Yes, we salsa danced with the locals, finally, and provided dance partners to some sweet Colombian old ladies out on the town for a reunion. We chatted (and danced, of course) with the daughter of one who was excited about our visit and research and provided great insight. We’ve been reading our novels, texts, research documents, guidebooks and Spanish phrasebooks, and, needless to say, learning through our cultural and academic experiences here.

Through the course of our travels, research, discussions, and reflections, we have discerned emergent themes. At times I’ve found some things hard to reconcile in my mind. Mostly, that while Colombians still have a ghost of their violence, of their fear, of their uncertainty, they are still happy people and say as much. We are here during a great moment of change for the country, but it would be naive to say that disconcerting issues no longer exist. So, what is Colombia, really? I’m not sure we can fully answer, yet. What stays consistent is the happiness of the people, their welcoming nature, their desire for change, their resilience and constant hope. For me, the disappointments they have experienced — from every government, military, para-military, guerrillas, NGO’s, politicians, and institutions — have left them reluctant to believe that anyone will help, yet their happiness and hope seem contradictory and irreconcilable. But what I’ve realized is that their culture, their happiness, their resilience and hope are the very things no one can take from them. Collectively, it is what has protected Colombians and what will preserve them and their deep culture. It is both their defense mechanism and their treasure.

 

 

KATE: Today is our last day in Bogota. I want to take it in as much as possible before we head to Cartagena, the land of sun and fun, in just a few hours. So four of us ventured out.

 

Today we had a wonderful experience at the local Market. It’s a daily market full of fruits and vegetables. Meat hanging everywhere. Live chickens being chosen, killed and plucked on site. I surprised myself by wanting to see this. And flowers. So many flowers. The flower stalls are the size of the entire rest of the market. We marvel at the people carrying the most massive bushels of brightly colored groupings of every shape, size and aroma. And they are bought. I made a mental note to look more into the flower supply chain here. Were these cut this morning? Yesterday? I will have to ask our friend Pedro in Chicago whose first job was at a cut flower farm.

 

We had a very fun experience with a small juice stand. The juice here will be missed. I had banana juice con leche, Justine guava, Greg orange and carrot, his new favorite. And Sarah, she got 4 whole mangos blended and put in a cup. That would be her first 4 mangos of the day. We ate arepas from another small stand, getting espresso from one close by. This would be mine and Justine’s second of 5 arepas in one day. In our defense, we shared all of them, but am fully aware that doesn’t make anything better. Having lost all sense of self control, I will have to diet when I get back, that is clear.

 

From here the four of us went on to the Gold Museum. This museum is guarded on all sides by multiple security officers and on the first floor of the exhibit, it’s clear why. The gold is beautiful, artistically and skillfully crafted by people of the region since 60 AD. Jewelry, tools, statues. We read how these tools allowed them to migrate down the coast and become the first human residents of this beautiful land.

 

We knew we only had a few more minutes before it would be time to head to the airport leaving Bogota (for now), so Sarah, Justine and I ran out into the square. We bought bracelets and Coca Cola. Took selfies in the square and watched life happen. When Greg joined us it was time for another Arepa for me and Justine and another cup of mangos for Sarah. The last sounds and smells of Bogota were absorbed as we found our way to our ride from Lisa and Aggeliki.

 

Landing in Cartagena it is immediately HOT. We jumped up and down so excited with images of shorts and sundresses in our head. The drive to the hotel was quick and we wasted almost no time before getting out into the streets.

 

We found a bustling city of locals and tourists intermingling. While everyone in Colombia gives us a big smile and a wink when we say we are coming to Cartagena, it’s not like visiting other Caribbean tourist towns. It feels authentic, it feels Colombian. Even touristy as it may be, most of the tourists are Colombian. The people here are so happy! And why not, they live in paradise. They wear long sleeved shirts like they can’t feel the 90+ degree heat. They carry groceries and come into the same market everyday, waving at the cashier as they do. They sit on the sides of buildings and streets, drinking Coca Cola and playing chess.

 

The old city, where we stayed, is surrounded by a giant wall. This wall that once protected the city from the outside, now protects this city from sprawl. This wall says “Let the sprawl happen outside, this city is ours.”

 

Walking around we find dancers, street artists. We hear music and people are almost dancing in the streets. There is poverty here, and you see it when you peel back the rose tint caused by all the beauty and hospitality. You see more people begging here, more squatting in long deserted buildings. The informal economy is alive and everywhere. The arepas we can’t stop buying, the little trinkets we will buy along the street, all come from these informal entrepreneurs.

 

The sun sets at 6pm and the best vantage point in the city is from the top of the wall. There is a bar there called Cafe de Mar. They have a giant Colombian flag that waves in the wind as the magnificent orange sun sets over the peaceful Caribbean sea.

 

We had dinner at 7, early by Colombian standards, and since we have an early and full day tomorrow, we headed back to our place early. A futile effort as energized by the excitement of our surroundings, four of us stayed up much too late talking on the balcony overlooking the wall, and on the other side, the ocean.

 

KATE: Reading a longtime favorite author of mine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, feels different now. I can feel the heat he wrote about, the sound of the city, the food he ate while writing from his home in Cartagena. A walled city that must have inspired thousands of ideas, that gave him the exact right location to reflect on hundreds of years Colombian history and culture. I know what the characters in his books looked like, how they smiled, how they danced.

 

I first read Marquez in high school, One Hundred Years of Solitude unraveling around me like a tornado of awe and excitement. At that time, and over the next few years, as I read everything he had written (save his Autobiography – I will now) I vowed to someday visit Colombia. The very nature of our original question of reality vs perception is what kept me out. But adult bravery, and student brazenness coupled with a group of wonderful students allowed me to realize this dream. And I will be forever thankful.

 

When we originally conceived of this hair brained scheme to continue our education in a new place, inspired by our collective time last year in South East Asia, no one in our group of six anticipated how much we would have been touched by Colombia. In different ways though, that’s important. It wasn’t that we all loved it in the same unabashed, giddy, new love, embracing the country with open arms, planning vacation homes, permanent residences and new life directions. I don’t believe that was the case, perhaps sometimes the opposite. No matter the emotion, there is no doubt that we are all different now.

 

While we still have a paper to write, one that will be difficult in many ways; choosing a topic we all agree on to the conclusions drawn through our research, to the challenges of writing a paper in a group of 6 very busy students, I believe the final outcome of this class will be very good. We understand that to make our experiences live on, we must write them. We owe it to the people we met and the messages they want us to send.

 

KATE: Pelicans float aimlessly over calm water before they turn quickly, diving down in a large splash. Smaller birds wait close by, hoping to catch the leftovers. The hills raise from the smoky haze of the salty water. A large cargo ship floats evenly by as small yachts look on, one with a Canadian flag waving quickly off a small flag pole. Behind it a line of larger and larger cargo ships as far as you can see. A plain curved bridge, fortunate for its opportunity, crosses the water. Except for the movement of the boats, you can’t imagine a person in sight. That’s the Panama Canal.

 

A developed city, far more than my ignorant self-expected. Here, the impoverished towns ALL have satellite dishes prominently featured on their toppling homes. All we will see is the downtown and the canal, but it’s pretty and it’s tall and it looks prosperous.

 

We’re happy to be here for a few hours more of exploring. We meet a nice cab driver named Bobby who drives us to the canal, or more specifically, a bar on the canal, and then offers to pick us up in 3 hours. We have lunch and then walk and watch the ships come in. I was nervous this wouldn’t work, that it wouldn’t be a good idea, to leave with only 8 hours between flights, but now I am so happy to watch these ships move so slowly over a still water.

 

Greg teaches me about stuff in the military and about boats, and I listen and ask too many annoying questions. But he’s been the only guy for 9 days so he doesn’t even bat an eye. We reflect on the last week and he says, “I wish we were more prepared” and I agree. Not because we weren’t prepared to go on this trip, or because we didn’t have every hour packed – we did, but because we could have been experts in this country and visiting would have still surprised us. Next time we will already understand before we get there. Next time maybe I will live there and can give them a place to stay.

 

Being in Panama for 8 hours I miss Colombia. I miss the arepas and the air, I miss Cartegena and its non-stop happiness. I miss Bogota and its readiness to be at the forefront of the thinking world. I miss my friends who we left in the country, ready for one last night of saying goodbye. I can hear their voices in my ear and I am sad because I realize, we will never have that again. Then, I stop myself from reflecting too much and remember that we still have so much to do.

 

 

  • By Pedro on 3.10.2015 at 3:30 pm

    What a delight!!!!!
    Cheers
    pn

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