Why did a talk with Americans in Colombia make me so happy?

Are you cringing? I know I normally do when I think of meeting other Americans abroad. I’ll admit that they aren’t always so bad. I’ve met wonderful people while traveling who are from America and everywhere else. I’ve also met wonderfully terrible people from everywhere. I don’t know if a French person would roll their eyes at the thought of running into other French people. Or Brits, or Aussies, or South Africans, or Brazilians, or whoever. But for me, when you travel enough you grow to expect certain things of people from certain places. Sure, there’s lots of people defying these preconceptions over and over again, every now and again you meet the incarnation of all the stereotypes. Of all of the notions I have about different people, it’s other Americans that make me cringe the most. I know deep down that their behavior reinforces stereotypes about us all. Perhaps, I know people just like the stereotypes, maybe they’re in my family or I see them in my Facebook feed. Surely you too have some friends or family you wouldn’t take anywhere and proudly associate with them. It be like that sometimes.

In Colombia though, I crossed paths with two people who left me with one of the best moments of my trip. Subconsciously, it could have been my desparate desire to find other people who spoke my language and understood my accent. People who didn’t contort their face when I said my vacation was 10 days instead of 10 months. People who were also fumbling around with elementary-level Spanish, but trying in earnest to speak with some level of sophistication.

My first night in Medellín, I unsuspectingly took a seat at the front patio of my hostel where a guy was sitting at the table opposite me. He struck up small talk. I cringed when I heard his accent.

Ugh. A fellow American.

A few minutes in, another solo traveler joined us, she too American. Three hours later, we were still there flabbergasted at how much better this wild-ranging conversation had made us. He from a suburb outside of Detroit. She from Maine. Me from a suburb of Washington DC.

He was a real live version of Stephen Colbert, without the radical silly conservative leanings, but naïveté, curiosity and self-certainty in tact. In fact, I’m not even sure his name wasn’t Stephen by the end of our conversation.

She, with her impressive progressive politics, having went to one of New England’s finest she-she-foo-foo liberal arts colleges. She took issue with white apologists who were convinced that white people were a brand of terrible that superseded the terribleness of some of the peoples they pillaged. Me, with my anthropological leanings and knack for diplomacy, talked about how religion serves a critical function for human civilization; therefore, who cares what my personal opinion of it is? He with his crazy stories about losing his virginity at 23, drawing out business school for five years, almost getting recruited into a powerful secret evangelical society (think Illuminati level), and his self-admitted blinding privilege that kept him from ever having to see the world from the vantage point of deficit. We discussed American imperialism, female genital mutilation, dick pics and patriarchy, accents and cheating, spirituality and politics, feminism and language learning, racism and black lives matter, and how terrible non-Americans could also be while traveling. We even talked about how we would have never had this conversation at home with strangers. There was simply no room left in our country for dialogue with nuance; not on social media, not in person, and not among strangers with differing opinions. We had to fly thousands of miles for nuance.


For some, the topics might seem overly serious. Or overly political. Or overly overly for a conversation with strangers, but oh contraire. There was A LOT of laughing. There was slapstick, poking fun at each other, and shared disbelief that we were even having this conversation at all. We wondered and discovered together, sharing bits and pieces of ourselves over topics that stretch far beyond the periphery of our everyday priorities. This is precisely why the conversation is an experience that will stick with me.

I found camaraderie in an unlikely place. A conversation that gave us all great joy, real dialogue and not the junk of polarities and extreme binaries; we could all be different yet still managed to deliberate, collectively contemplate, and give and take. In a world where conversation has become about beating people down with self-righteous opinions about ANYthing, no matter how un- or misinformed it may be, I went to bed that night with my cup a little more full than it was when I landed in Colombia. I never saw either of them again and am still unsure I didn’t make the whole thing up.


[inquire] Ever have a memorable conversation with someone while traveling locally or internationally that stuck with you? Or maybe it left you enlightened, or perhaps enraged? Was it the conversation — the actual topics discussed — that made it memorable? Or was it the connection — a more emotional and meaningful exchange of passions — that made it memorable?

1 Comment

  • comment-avatar
    Adriana September 16, 2015 (8:40 pm)

    Glad you visited my country!
    Keep exploring the world and sharing it with us, please.