View over a lake in Los Nevados National Park.
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According to local tradition, people with higher status or education should be treated with the respectful title “Don”.

While residents from neighbouring countries and foreigners like to describe Colombia as “Locombia” (crazy Colombia), Colombians are perhaps best identified by their holy trinity: religion, coffee and music. Those who are able to look past the country’s bad reputation, and have the fortune of spending more than a few months here, can enjoy its distinctive culture and beauty fully. The sultry sounds of “cumbia” and “Colombian salsa” music start from subtle admiration and later blossom into to real love. And although, in the minds of many foreigners, two elements from the trinity of characteristics are replaced by civil war and drugs, the third replacement, pride, is clear for all to see.

Boys practising tricks near Fundadores Park, Manizales.

Visiting Colombia, I often felt like a man of higher status, because of the respect given to me by others. People here are treated with great respect, and according to local tradition, people with higher education should be treated with the respectful title “Don”. In Europe and the United States having a higher education is no longer considered prestigious and those people who have one are not afforded the higher status, that is, in my opinion, deservedly recognised by residents of Latin American countries. The only people referred to in a disparaging way are Americans who are simply labelled “gringos.” Because I am white, I’m assumed to be American and also branded with this label. In response I say I’m Russian, and also, with a higher education, so call me Don Anton.

Roberto at work in a parking lot in Jericó.
Car repair shops near San Antonio, Medellin.

I was going to visit Colombia for about half a year and while I was preparing for my trip I heard a lot of scary advice / stories about the recent civil war, violent criminals, political corruption and common fears. We met an Australian teacher who regaled us with extremely shocking and amusing stories of his time in Colombia. He ran his finger along a bullet scar on his right temple and told us about his near misses. People told me that I should be vigilant and stay away from the slum areas. That if threatened at knife point, I should give them what I have — “Life is not worth it, my friend,” people advised. This terrible picture complemented by reports of drug dealers, shooting in the streets, gang fights and guerrilla violence.

Pueblo Nuevo market, Buenaventura.
View over a comuna in Medellin.

I knew almost nothing about Colombia before I arrived. I wasn’t aware that this is where Shakira is from, a country with coasts on two oceans, tolerance zones, the best coffee on Earth, unique birds,“Cumbia,” the father of the magical realism, the homeland of the most infamous cartel leader, now the star of endless documentary stories and glamorous TV shows. Colombians are sick of hearing that their country is lawless and with the fetishisation of the drug cartels. They are proud, but they can be very sensitive to criticism from outsiders, especially when those critical outsiders often also have a weakness for cocaine. It’s these people with large nostrils that are stimulating the persistence of the drug war in the country. Yes! It’s you, coming here to buy blow, citizens of the “developed” world, you play a large part in causing the chaos, displacement and genocide that has ravaged this country.

Man transporting goods on La Brujita in San Cipriano National Park.

Despite fearing its troubled past Colombia didn’t limit me from anything, it gave me more than I expected. I saw natural attractions, colonial towns, coastal slums on stilts and incredible birds. Not a day passed without a man passing by selling avocados or cups of hot chocolate being drunk.

An iguana in Medellin's Jardin Botanico.

While in the Andean forests, I watched the falling leaves with a thrill. Reminiscent of the approaching autumn and the end of summer in the northern hemisphere, and therefore of cold and snow. But here these leaves fall all year round, and their crowns are constantly renewed. All these things will remain in my memory for many years. After all, man does not live by bread alone, we need more and Colombia offers all of this and some.