First of all, I promise that the image above will tie into this. I also promise you that I know the image above is shoddily made and ridiculous.
When I decided to do Peace Corps in Colombia, I had no fears whatsoever about my safety. I didn’t do any research or anything. I knew what the general population knew about Colombia (drugs! kidnappings! the world’s most dangerous drug! little is known about this beast so don’t let that link freak you out), but I just wasn’t worried. The US government doesn’t tend to willfully send civilians into dangerous places, plus I knew the history of Peace Corps in Colombia (first country established with volunteers in 1961, program withdrawn in 1981 due to safety concerns with drug cartels and guerrilla armies running rampant, re-established in 2010 because those situations had cleared up).
Then I got to Colombia and our Safety and Security Manager did a good job scaring me with all of the worst-case scenarios and advice for mitigation. Always double-check license plates on cabs, always do a good check of ATMs to be sure there’s nothing fishy about it, never pick up magazines in the back of cabs, “no den papaya” (literally, “don’t give papaya;” the local way of saying “don’t show off what you’ve got for people to take”). That’s so much to keep in mind!
Beyond this advice, Peace Corps has a lot of strict rules in place in an attempt to protect us.
For example, we are not allowed to travel after dark. If we are in the city, we need to leave early enough to arrive back at our sites by 6:30.
We also are not allowed to ride the buses in the cities but are rather reimbursed for taxis and/or can use Uber via a Peace Corps corporate account.
Certain areas of the coastal cities are red zones, which means we are prohibited from being there, and actually much of the country is a red zone since there is still active guerrilla activity.
Unfortunately, the rules don’t always make practical sense.
For example, there is at least one Volunteer in Barranquilla who lives in one red zone (prohibited from being there) and works in another. Many Volunteers live in rural areas where, in order to travel back to the Peace Corps office, they must make bus transfers in a red zone.
Many Volunteers, including myself, live in sites where the only mode of transportation available is motorcycles, which are prohibited (which is why we receive bicycle stipends).
The rules also don’t always contribute to our integration. I am constantly trying to get people to understand that I don’t have unlimited resources (money) to use for projects or give out, but when I can just get in a taxi or summon an Uber in the city, that contradicts that image a bit.
But let’s be real: the fear that our Safety and Security Manager instilled in me early on didn’t stick around for long. I’ve never been any more afraid for my personal safety here than I ever was in Minneapolis. What I do fear the safety of is my cell phone. “No des papaya” continues to be really solid advice.
While I want to say that you learn when and where you can safely pull out your phone and for what length of time, it’s not that simple. One evening while I was sitting on my patio with my host family, there was a commotion across the street where we had watched two young men approach two young women who were sitting on the curb. We all thought that they knew each other and were playing a game or flirting, until we saw the boys run and hop on a motorcycle waiting nearby; that’s when we learned that one of them had had her phone stolen out of her hands. While sometimes the bars that surround my front porch area make me feel like a monkey in a zoo, I am glad that they are there because it makes it less likely that incidents like this will happen to me.
Ultimately, Colombia isn’t the danger you may think it to be. Unless you are a cell phone.