Over the past ten years I have traveled through many parts of the world, mainly developing or non-western countries. I haven’t been everywhere, nor have I seen everything. Certainly I have been humbled in knowing that the more I experience, the less I know.
Something strange keeps repeating itself. The same question continues to be asked of me here in Bogotá, Colombia. “What is your favorite country?” I do not have a favorite country, mainly because the places I have despised most have been the places that have changed me. These places made me aware of quite simple and obvious ideas. It’s difficult to say a place that I didn’t enjoy is a favorite, but each is equally valuable.
I can honestly say that the place I was first culture shocked was the first country (besides Canada) I stepped outside of the United States and into. In Costa Rica, in 2002, I was a boy running away, or maybe searching for something subconsciously. The impact of that first journey ensured that I would never stop searching. I was never to be content in one place, making my soul a passenger with many layovers, and a destination yet to be determined.
In this first foreign experience everything seemed magical: whether it be a packaged bag of fried plantains for sale at the market, three people plus a dog, a five gallon bucket, and a step-ladder all on a motorcycle, or drinking cola out of a plastic bag with a straw. That whole trip opened my eyes to a larger world filled with simple foreign differences. It was captivating because average people were comfortable in their skin, they didn’t so obviously fascinate about having what others had. It gave me hope; to know that there was living proof that sincerity existed. This was so different from the society that I witnessed growing up. To me that was culture shock, the purest high.
Now, back to the question that continues to be posed by the Colombians. “What is your favorite country?” The first few times it was asked, I gave a political answer such as “I like them all,” or a cynical answer “Everywhere but Iraq.” The latter isn’t true, Iraq taught me discipline, I learned the importance of doing what I say, and saying what I do.
Two teenagers were trying to sell me business cards on the street in Bogotá. After refusing, we began having a conversation about everything under the sun. Strangely enough, one of the boys asks me what my favorite country was. I decided to answer the question by sharing some of my most impacting experiences in the western hemisphere. I came to the realization that when asked, I should feel obligated to share my experiences, because most people won’t have the opportunity to see some of the things I have seen.
“I have three countries here in Latin America that I value for different reasons. The first being Guatemala” I said. They both started laughing, thinking I was joking. The two boys were about 17, well dressed, and spoke as though they were educated. They stopped laughing and looked at me seriously, so I continued. “Guatemala has an indigenous population that is as close to pristine as possible. In the mountainous villages indigenous people still wear traditional textile clothing, harvest corn with their bare hands, and speak their native languages.” “Why is that so impacting?” Asked one of the boys. “Because progress and communication have made the world smaller. Nearly everywhere I go I see McDonald’s, cellphones, or Nike tennis shoes. For me to see a place not yet consumed or influenced by progress is special.” I said. They looked at each other and back at me. I had their full attention.
“What’s the next place?” “Chile,” I said. They were not surprised by this answer. Probably because most Latinos are envious of Chile, it has the most stable economy in Latin America. “I was there about a month and a half ago with my mother. My first impression was that the country is very clean and orderly. But that’s not what I value most about Chile, it’s that everybody knows what is going on in their country, and around the world politically. From the barber, to the shoe shiner, to the taxi drivers: they all engaged me in intense discussions about my country, Israel’s influence, the pro’s and con’s of Hugo Chavez, Putin’s Russia. A lot of people from my country don’t care what is happening, and the sad part is that some of those who do care can’t even get an accurate idea of what is taking place because of the mainstream media. I realized how Chile’s media had so much variety, and how the culture as a whole are people who naturally question everything. Also, the education system is second to none in the region. But that’s, not all,” I said taking a deep breath. “I witnessed student protests and demonstrations from Santiago to as far south as Punta Arenas. People not only knew what was happening, but were holding the government accountable.”
“The U.S isn’t the same way?” Asked one of the boys. “No, not until recently (occupy wall street). There is no excuse, the U.S has the resources, but most live in a bubble. Maybe they’re brainwashed, maybe the country is too big, I don’t know. My point is that I respect Chileans for their knowledge, opinions, and activism.” I probably didn’t use this exact vocab in our Spanish conversation, but it’s as close as I can get.
“And finally, the third country is Colombia,” I said with a grin. They both looked at me shocked and equally enthused to hear their countries recognition. “Whenever I tell my family or friends I am going to or coming from Colombia, they always ask if I am scared of being kidnapped, or if I have ever used cocaine while here. They still believe in stereotypes from a decade ago. This is the reason why there are so few tourists. If they do not see for themselves, they will never know. I believe Colombians are very sensitive, and have a lot of (soul) alma.” When I said this they both gave me a strange look as if it were an insult. Latino men tend to be very macho. “I mean that Colombians are genuine, and caring people. From Cartagena, to San Martin, to Bucaramanga, I have always been treated like family in Colombia. I have been welcomed into stranger’s homes, listened to, and even looked after in situations that could have gotten me into trouble. As a North American, this is one of the few places that I feel genuinely appreciated. Most everywhere I’ve been people think I am rich, or they are nice in a manner that is phony. I am accustomed to folks wanting to benefit from me in some way.” One of the boys grabbed my hand and started shaking it; he was thrilled to hear somebody say something positive about his country. This didn’t surprise me. It’s really that rare for anyone to give credit to Colombia for anything, it’s always about drugs or danger.
One of the boys looked at his watch in a manner to suggest they had better get back to work. “Just a minute,” said the other boy. “Well, what is your favorite of the three countries?” he asked. “I told you I didn’t have a favorite, these are just the most impacting qualities.” I responded. The boy stood there thinking for a moment. “Culture, Education, or Soul, to me anybody can be taught, and Culture is interesting and all, but soul…. soul doesn’t grow on trees, soul wins!” He said with confidence. What he said made perfect sense; I patted him on the shoulder and told him that I agreed. I value soul over the others, it’s all-encompassing. The boys wished me luck on my travels; I wished them both a good life.
After sharing my honest thoughts and experiences with them, I felt a little more reason for all of these travels and journeys without destinations. In reality, I do not have a favorite country. Each is a piece to some sort of puzzle; sorting it out is a life’s work.