Monday, January 20, 2014

Moving Abroad to Medellín: An Expat Interview

article from January 24, 2011
by Julie R Butler

Looking for some insight into moving to Latin America? I have been asking experienced expats if they could share some of their experiences and I found the responses of this gentleman to be particularly insightful, especially this bit of wisdom that most will agree sums up the Latin American character:

“I learned that no matter what, the family was the most important aspect of each of their lives.”

The location is Medellín. Despite the fearful reputation this city gained during the 80s and the 90s, there is much more to this second-largest city in Colombia that cocaine-cowboy violence. After the demise of Pablo Escobar in the mid-1990s, a renaissance has brought this important historical, cultural, and intellectual center back with a vengeance (so to speak).

Q: How much did you know about Medellín before you moved there?

A: I had traveled to Medellín about 8-10 times over a three-year period of time. I met many local citizens and became friends with a select few. Drivers, of course, who had their own cars, were a big plus so that taking a taxi was only used occasionally or for short trips around town. And the couple of drivers who I felt that I could trust were almost always available. Their English was much better than my español, thank God. Their knowledge of the intricacies of the culture and sharing that knowledge with me –"what to do and what not to do" – was invaluable.

Fortunately, my work in the USA allowed me to travel as often as I wanted. I would spend 3-5-7 days or so on each visit. And each time that I returned to the USA, as I landed in Miami, I immediately began thinking about when I would schedule my next trip. The tourist promo that the Colombia government uses, "the only danger is not wanting to leave" certainly applied to me.

Q: What was the hardest aspect of adjustment for you?

A: After the initial excitement had worn off, I think the hardest part for me was trying to stay mentally busy. I have often said that visiting Medellín as opposed to living there is like a kid visiting a candy store every now and then, and then when you live there, you are in the store every day, and the thrill is not the same.

[One of the hardest aspects of adjustment was] to understand that people living in a country such as Colombia think that all gringos are "rich" no matter what your economic status in the USA might be. For the most part, even if they had no money, they somehow seemed to be happy.

There were times when I was told that it was unsafe for me to travel to a certain part of town, or drive out into the countryside. That feeling bothered me for a while, but I soon learned that my friends were just looking out for me.

Q: What would you say is the most important thing that you wish you had
known or understood before moving?

A: That no matter how you try to blend into the culture, and no matter if you are accepted, you are always considered a gringo/visitor/foreigner. And that is OK, for the most part. I had to learn that I could not impose my cultural norms on the people who I came in contact with, and frankly should not even try to do so. If they wanted to do or behave the way they did, it was not my place to try to correct them or whatever.

I never felt in "danger" at any point in time during my visits, or for the time I lived there (2005-2008). I did have to learn to control my urge to make (loud) verbal comments to drivers on the street. And that jumping in line ahead of someone in the supermarket is a common occurrence that I had to learn to not become irritated over. My friends just told me it was not worth it, as you never know who that person might be.

On the other end of the spectrum, I was once in line at the concession stand at the movies, and had dropped some pesos on the floor. The person in line behind me made a special attempt to get my attention as I was leaving and returned the money to me.

The most important thing I wish I had learned is to be more patient with "when and if " things got done or not; being told one thing and it turns out to be not true or is incorrect; that lending money to a "friend" in dire need (or so they said) was never intended to be repaid even though they said it would be.

Q: What sources of info/advice have you found helpful (Internet, books,
neighbors, lawyers, bar tenders...)?

I tend to absorb info/advice from observing, and listening more than talking. I felt that if I could learn from anyone who I came in contact with, just one little thing about their culture, way of life, or how to do and not do things, in their culture, was a learning experience for me.

Q: Any tips on learning Spanish?

A: I picked up a little Spanish during my visits, but after I moved to Medellín, I enrolled in a Spanish class at a local university. But most importantly, becoming immersed in the culture , and listening. As many people in the culture were in the process of learning or improving their English, they often wanted to speak to me in English and for me to speak to them in English, as well. Many good learning tools , such as "Spanish for Gringos," CDs, and watching TV shows were also a big help. Making sure that I read the local newspaper on a daily basis was also good for me.

Many thanks to this thoughtful reader for sharing. If you are an expat who would like to contribute your thoughts, insights, experiences, please contact me at the email listed below.

[Image of Medellín via Wikipedia]

Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking
email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler

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