So I just got back from a two week trip to Medellin, Colombia, which is where my father was born and raised, and I was absolutely amazed at almost every turn. Though I have visited the country several times during my childhood, I had forgotten how beautiful the countryside is, exploding with flora and fauna that I have never even heard of, much less seen, in the United States.
Then there's the people. If you're the kind of person who feels guilty about not giving money to every homeless person you pass, then you may not be able to survive Colombia because everyone is so painfully friendly, helpful, and kind that you will thoroughly feel like a jackass for not buying a bobble from every passing street vendor. Guaranteed.
And this is not even mentioning the fresh and incredible food, which more often than not will have been grown and picked within a few miles of wherever it is being served, as well as the cleanliness of the streets, the extremely eco-consciousness culture and a lack of major waste products, and the exchange rate. If you head down to Colombia with a bank account loaded with American dollars, you can basically triple whatever sum is in your savings when considering what you'd be able to buy. As a struggling college student surviving off of dinky summer jobs, I was astounded at all of the beautiful, bougie merchandise I was able to collect from authentic leather shops, ultra-modern shopping centers, and artisan food stores.
Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, doted upon by a loving and inviting culture, and triple the net worth that I had been back home, I honestly felt like something of an heiress during my short stay in my father's hometown.
Now, that being said, from the title of this article, you already know that it wasn't all peaches and cream and beautiful times for me as an American transplant. In fact, there were a few moments where I was really starting to miss my smelly, boring bedroom in my less smelly, boring house in boring suburban Georgia. Why, you may ask, literally having clicked on this article for the sole purpose of knowing what the hell could be so great about small town American and instead being blindsided by this long-ass introduction? Well here's the answer:
Normal Clothes Sizes
My uncle, Ricardo Leon (2013)
Taken by Nicole Merizalde
I'm '5''2 and of an average weight for my height, and I felt like a fat giant during some days of this trip. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a few of my aunts, I easily dwarfed or rivaled half the people in any given room, whereas in the U.S. I often have to look up at people from under their noses and am the butt of a lot of height and age jokes. That wasn't necessarily a problem, though. I've always been taller than a lot of my relatives because of my mom's anglicized genes, and I knew going into this trip that I would literally stand out from a lot of other women in the country for my relative height.
That wasn't the problem. The real problem, that I never even saw coming, was the fact that the clothes run so small and tight. You may be thinking something along the lines of "of course the clothes would be smaller and tighter if the people are shorter. Natalie, you're so freaking stupid. Why am I even reading your dumbass article?" Except, for all the relative differences in height between me and every other woman in Colombia, for the most part our hip, stomach sizes were almost exactly the same. Everyone may have been as tall or shorter than me, but we were just as wide all around.
For some reason, though, Colombians like to run their sizes extremely small and everyone is wobbling around in these tight t-shirts and smothering jeans that are probably cutting off all their circulation. It's absurd and more than a little discouraging when I walk into a clothing outlet and can barely squeeze into an XL that would have been a comfortable medium or close-fitting small in the United States. And I'm not speaking theoretically, here. I actually had to be this pair of overalls in an XL, the only XL they had, and they were still squeezing my thighs on the wrong side of too hard.
Three Girls in Medellin (2013)
Taken by Nicole Merizalde
On the subject of clothes, you know what other Colombian staple will seem pretty wonky to any passing American? Their fashion sense. Tight, tacky t-shirts and plain jeans are all the rage. It's just like my father himself has said: clothing trends always arrive about twenty years late to Colombia. So right now, despite the fact that a number of ultra trendy boutiques and malls have cropped up in and around Medellin, for the most part the country is bogged down in the early 2000s phase with nothing but tacky tees and boring jeans.
In fact, in addition to my height and my mixed ethnic appearance, the fact that I was wearing shirts that didn't have sequin hearts or something like Girl Power stamped on the boobs really hammered home the fact that I was American. Who am I kidding? Even the fact that I was wearing shorts and not tight, perfectly ironed jeans was something of a fashion statement.
It's important to note that, in contrast to Americans, who have become fully comfortable and even bold in their choice to go outside wearing printed lounge pants that could just as easily be pajama bottoms, Colombians have this unspoken social conduct to always look as clean, prim, and proper as possible. However, while that sounds like it may translate into wearing a suit or dress, in actuality it means that one should wear jeans, well-pressed, smooth, unripped, and that the same rules must apply to the accompanying top. Anything with flashy prints or rips or that is loose on the body or of an unconventional style, while it may seem hyper stylish and cool to American tastes, is usually viewed as informal and foreign.
Feeling Safe on the Road
Commercial Tour Bus, Medellin (2013)
Taken by Nicole Merizalde
People drive like maniacs in Colombia. And when I say people I don't just mean people rushing to work or my cousins, who braved the insane streets to take us to different destinations across the city. No, even taxi and bus drivers whip through the streets, graze other cars at frightening speeds, and blast through turns where pedestrians are carefully timing when they can safely sprint across the street. It's mayhem, regardless of whether you're in the city or going up a country road, and there were far too many instances where we legitimately almost got into an accident with a paid, specially licensed driver behind the wheel.
True, it really enhanced the vacation experience by making us literally perch on the edge of our seats, but always being crammed into a car barreling through narrow streets at terrifying speeds kind of lost its charm after a while and, despite myself, I couldn't help but miss how American drivers will begrudgingly wait for you to meander across intersections and would balk at the kind of daredevil driving that kills thousands of people in Colombia every year.
Toilet Paper Dispenser
Okay, so this one is a little silly but please hear me out. As I said before, in comparison to a lot of Colombian women, I'm kind of a big girl. So, coupling this what I mentioned before about Colombia being super eco-friendly and very meticulous about not producing a lot of waste, the end result is that the average toilet over there is pipsqueak version of the huge, monster bowls we have over here in the states.
In case you're not picking up on the point that I'm trying to avoid here, the toilets over there get clogged very easily, and there's nothing more embarrassing than desperately flushing the toilet a dozen times in the hopes that you didn't just break the plumbing with your unwieldy American body before finally finding that, yeah, it's busted because of you.
I think I've made my point and I really don't want to dwell on this one. Moving on.
My cousins, looking distressed (2013)
Taken by Nicole Merizalde
Are there some ultra-modern, super nice shopping centers with tons of amenities and trendy diverse food options? Yes, I've mentioned this like four times already. However, in a more general, day-to-day sense, is the Colombian diet centered around heavy bread products, meats, and proteins? Absolutely.
While Colombia is lush with delicious, fresh foods that graze or bloom from the soil only a few miles or even feet away from where they will be cooked, the quality of these raw products is countered by the fact that the dishes they will be cooked into are very similar and almost never friendly to people with delicate diets. Vegetarians,vegans, and people following a low carb or keto diet will probably starve unless they stick close to those ultramodern shopping centers I was talking about.
Furthermore, even if you don't do what my sister did and try to follow a keto diet while in the home of fried bread products and heavy, hearty meals, you might still end up craving the greater variety of food that's offered in the United States. Of course, the quality of our raw products is far below that of Colombia. Even just comparing something as basic as a fried egg between the two countries is bound to have Colombia's fresher, richer product win in a landslide. However, it's undeniable that, perhaps partially as a result of the United States relying so heavily on and thus maximizing the use of imports and the movement of goods across the country, there is a huge array of meals and styles of food that are available across the nation, and it was that ability to explore a huge variety of food options that had me itching for a taste of the U.S. after fourteen days of bunuelos, empanadas, and arepas.
Me, looking distressed (2013)
Taken by Nicole Merizalde
Never have I been more understanding of the Human Rights Organization's listing of the internet as a human right than after being stuck in countless mountain towns without that instant access to global news and social media. While "taking a break from the world" by turning one's phone off can be nice, not having the option to check into things over the web when I really needed to find out an important piece of information or desperately had to contact someone about a personal situation was hardly a pleasant feeling. Hell, even not being able to look up something as generic as "fun things to do in Medellin" was aggravating. It was like being locked into one room of a house that I had once been able to run through all the floors of.
I admit that it sounds a little melodramatic and maybe you're shaking your head at how kids nowadays don't know how to survive with their phones, but I'm just being honest.
Of course, none of this is to say that I disliked Colombia or didn't absolutely love returning to the places and people that I haven't been able to visit since I was in middle school. As I said at the beginning of this article, was amazed by my experience in Medellin and beyond and I wish I could have stayed a bit longer to enjoy everything that this incredible city has to offer. I only hoped that, just in time for the fourth of July, it would be fun to share some of the things, some goofier than others, that I appreciate about the United States and missed while I was away.
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