Matt Dickhaus decided he needed a change and moved from Florida to Medellin, Colombia. Why Medellin and why Colombia? Because it was the cheapest ticket to South America he could find. He also wanted to learn Spanish. And where better to learn than a place where the vast majority of travelers are still, unnecessarily so as he told me, afraid of going. He stayed in Medellin for two years until he recently moved on to Berlin where he now resides.
As part of my ongoing series on people who figured how to live abroad, I had to hear more.
Here is a bit of his story…
You hear a lot about safety problems in Colombia. What are the realities?
The reality is there are definitely dangerous places. You have to be aware of your surroundings more than you have to be in some places. But if you are smart and you pay attention to what is going on and avoid dangerous places which are obvious 99% of the time, I would not say it is any more dangerous than LA or Miami. Ninety five percent of the people there are very good and the people who live there really look out for foreigners.
When you say ‘bad people’ I am assuming you are referring to theft and not the kidnappings that we hear about on TV correct?
When I first arrived I thought about the kidnappings because that is what you hear, I quickly came to the point where I never thought about it again. The worst that is going to happen is that you are going to get your wallet or your iPhone stolen. The worst of the violence is in the ghettos.
What is the reality of kidnappings in Colombia?
The reality is that the number of kidnappings has drastically decreased in recent years. In 2001 it was at an all time high of over 3,000 in a single year. In 2009, there were only 172 kidnappings. The idea that tourists are targets for kidnapping and demanding ransom is a myth as it is much easier to get ransom money from a rich Colombian family and avoid the negative press as well. The majority of victims are Colombians, from 1996 to 2006 foreigners accounted for only 1.3% of all kidnapped victims. (For more information see: http://goo.gl/wrrnG)
How did you end up living in Colombia?
I graduated from college in 2009. I had a small business in Orlando doing valet parking and car washing while people had dinner. I had done that for three years. I was kind of tired of it. I wanted to either start applying for real jobs or have an adventure while I was young and did not have responsibilities. I started investigating places I could go. I figured I could learn Spanish as that would be very useful to me living in Florida. Spain was at the top of my list because I had been there before but it was very expensive and there were not a lot of job opportunities. The cheapest place to fly in South America was Medellin, Colombia, so that is where I went.
A cheap ticket was the final deciding factor?
Pretty much that and Medellin is the land of eternal spring. There are not a lot of tourists there because it has a bad reputation, so I knew that would be a good place to learn Spanish.
How did you manage the Colombian visa?
You can stay up to six months as a US citizen without a visa. I got a job with Berlitz which is an international language school. They actually sponsored me for a visa. I worked other places by the hour, but they would not give me a contract or help me with the paperwork. Berlitz gave me a contract.
Are there other ways to get a visa in Colombia other than getting a job?
What is the cost of living in Medellin, Colombia?
Apartments are very cheap. You could live for 1000 US dollars a month comfortably. For 2000 US dollars a month you could live very well. I lived in a shared apartment with four other college students. I lived in a four bedroom, three bathroom house. We had a maid who cleaned, cooked and did our laundry. It was 175 dollars a month for rent, utilities and a maid.
Where does the other 850 dollars a month in expenses come from?
Food. It is not that expensive, but if you eat out a lot and party a lot it can be.
How do expats find a place to live in Colombia?
The problem with the Latin culture is that people do not really leave their homes until they get married. When I was teaching English I had students who were in their 40s that were not married and still lived with their parents.
It sounds like Spain.
They do have Craigslist in Colombia but it is not very popular. It is mostly used by foreigners. A lot of families will rent out rooms and the mom will cook and clean for you and you live with the family, which is the most popular living format.
What about jobs in Colombia for expats?
The easiest thing to do is teach English because everyone wants to learn English. If you look in the phonebook there are fifty or sixty English schools. Everyone wants to learn.
Are English teaching jobs in demand there?
Yes. I did not really look that hard and I got a job at the best school in Medellin. I did not have any credentials other than being from the US and speaking English.
What are the salaries for teaching English in Medellin?
It is hourly. I earned about 1200 dollars a month. It is about 6 dollars an hour.
How would people go about finding out what kind of jobs are available to them?
They could try http://www.computrabajo.com.co/ or http://goo.gl/1bDDR. A lot of people put postings on stop signs to try and get students who want private English classes. Private classes are how you make more money.
How did you learn Spanish?
From the people I lived with. They did not speak any English. The three guys I lived with had a bunch of friends. I learned through drinking games and proximity. I did not take any classes. It was kind of sink or swim.
What are the differences in culture in the work environment that you struggled with?
It is a lot more laid back in Colombian work environments. When you walk in, you give everyone a kiss on the cheek and talk to everyone and then maybe start working a half hour later. Whereas in the US you kind of give a wave or a nod and get right to work which is the same as how it is in Germany. In Colombia it is much more community based where as in Germany and the US it is much more work based. In Colombia we had a lady that cooked lunch for the office once a week. She was the maid for our office so to give her a little additional income she would provide us a home cooked meal once a week and the whole office would have a meal together.
What about differences in culture in everyday life?
They are a lot more communal based in Columbia. If you go to a party everyone pitches in and eats and drinks the same thing. In the states everyone brings what they want to eat and drink. Also in Colombia it is a lot about sharing food. If I buy a hot dog on the street it is very common for my buddy to take a bite of it and then give it back to me. In the States that would not really happen.
Did you find any expats living in Medellin that were doing anything particularly creative in carving out a work niche there?
They are a lot of people working in tourism or real estate. The real estate market in Medellin is growing quickly especially with the retirees. There are a lot of retired individuals living there. They can take their money from the States and live well on a pension whereas in the States they may struggle on their pension. Colombians do not really speak English. You do not find a lot of people who speak English there. If you are bilingual you can find work because they need people who can bridge that gap.
How did you end up with the job you have now?
My German roommate was doing an internship with them in Medellin. He knew I was looking for a job because I was not too happy teaching English and he turned me onto it.
I have heard a lot of people say they did not like teaching English, why do you think that is?
It gets really repetitive and monotonous. They would not let you be creative. You just had to teach out of the book you were given. There were bad working hours. I would have to teach for an hour and a half at six o’clock in the morning and then I would not have another class until three o’clock. The hours are really spread out and you do not earn very much. You earn enough to get by but not enough to save and travel.
How did you socialize there?
I lived in a hostel for about two months when I first got there. I met some of the kids that worked at the hostel and they turned me onto the house where I ended up living and they just kind of adopted me into their group. I got really lucky.
Were there elements of life there you found particularly frustrated?
Logistically the buses stop every time someone pushes the bell so like every ten or twenty feet. It was the chaos of everything – donkeys, bicycles, cars and people all sharing the same street. Anything with electricity or gas or getting things fixed associated with my apartment did not work as efficiently as they should. People would not show up or they would not do a good job and would have to come back.
How was the Internet there?
It was fine. They have 3G.
What do you miss the most about living in Colombia and Medellin?
This is a difficult question, it could be the food. The handmade empanadas or the huge selection of tropical fruits which are widely available as fresh squeezed fruit juices. It could also be the slower pace of life, the general laid back nature, and the friendliness of the Colombian people. Or maybe it is the excitement of never knowing what you will see next. From street performers juggling flaming machetes at the intersection to a family of four all piled onto one motorcycle for a Sunday drive there seems to be a new surprise at every corner.
Do you have any books, websites or other resources you would recommend for people thinking about moving to Medellin or Colombia?
If people are uncertain about safety check they should check out: http://www.is-colombia-safe.com/. For basic information about Cololmbia they should see: http://www.colombia.travel/en/. It is a little outdated but great expat advice: http://poorbuthappy.com/colombia/
How do you think your life in Colombia and now Berlin is different from how your life would be if you were still in the US?
I think that living abroad has given me a greater understanding for what really matters in life apart from what the mainstream media tells us day in and day out. The GDP per capita in Colombia is around $10,000 so the pressure many of us feel in the US to “keep up with the Jones” doesn’t really exist. It is the people in your life and the experiences that you share with them that really matter not type of car you drive. My main priorities before leaving the States were money and material possessions and while these things still have a place in my life they are not the focus. I have witnessed families living in homes with dirt floors and tin roofs spending time with their family and taking nothing for granted. They are grateful for what they have and I am sure are some of the happiest people on the planet.
Where are the majority of the expats from in Colombia?
I think the majority of them are from the US, Canada, and Europe. It is a popular retirement destination as an individual’s social security pension is able to provide much more comfort than it would in the States.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about being an expat in Colombia?
Unfortunately a large majority of expats in Colombia come for two things, cocaine and prostitutes. This however is generally the case for tourists not residents, which can give the other expats a bad reputation.
What kept you in Medellin for two years?
My girlfriend kept me there. I was getting ready to leave about six or eight months after I got there and I started dating one of my co-workers and I decided to stay. Then I got a job doing exactly what I wanted to do and I was able to use both English and Spanish at work, travel and have a great job.
Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking of moving to Colombia?
Don’t be scared. It is not really as bad as people think. It is an amazing country. It is completely different from other South American countries. Be prepared to meet some of the most friendly people in the world. Everyone I know that has gone there has fallen in love with it, including myself.
Know More Before You Go! Get different people and perspectives so you can plan properly:
More about where Matt works at: www.viventura.com.