Seeing the best in life's challenges

Lessons from Cartagena

I lived in Cartagena from January to April 1978.  I was in tenth grade, and went there with three of my classmates as part of an exchange program.  I lived in Castillo Grande, went to school in Boca Grande, both near Laguito.  It truly was a different world, a completely different paradigm.

We attended an American school, with the kids of all the rich families of Cartagena.  The father of the family I stayed with was a plastic surgeon who specialized in hands.  The difference in lifestyle between the rich and the poor provided a very stark contrast.  I’ll never forget the cardboard shacks that were home to many Colombians.  The people I went to school with and lived with seemed never to give this a second thought.

At the time, we had running water only for a short time in the morning.  No hot water.  We came home from school midday to eat lunch and take a siesta.  The pace of life was much more relaxed.  I learned that when you slow down, have a less stressful life, and take a siesta, you need a whole lot less sleep.  The food was great – I gained 10 pounds.  (Our maid was a very good cook, in my opinion.)  We had plenty of beach time.  Instead of using a towel, you would just lie down on the sand.  I came home with darker skin than a light-skinned black kid on my school bus.  One of my favorite memories is watching the pelicans dive into the water.

We went to the discotheques with other kids from school.  No drinking age.  No big deal.

Going to church was a big deal.  We’d stand outside and socialize the whole time.  There were lots of Sweet 16 parties.  The girl I stayed with was obsessed with life in America, which she had learned about by reading Cosmo.  Her idea of the life of a teenager in America was pretty skewed.

The experience of living in Colombia is a big reason I question everything.  Most people live their life on auto-pilot and don’t ever consider that all those assumptions you take for granted aren’t universal.  Once that concept is shattered for you, you can’t go back.

I can tell you that Americans don’t have a clue about the cultural differences between the U.S. and Colombia.  The recent Secret Service scandal illustrates a lot of interesting issues.  Americans can’t help but interpret and judge and moralize about the situation with their own American bias.

This article from the NY Times is really interesting.  Americans look down their noses at “the prostitute,” but do you know that what she was doing was legal, and when the police got involved, they were on her side?  How does that one sit with you?  Observe your own bias – do you judge the woman?

Interesting, the Secret Service guy in question wasn’t doing anything illegal, he was just cheap (and got drunk).  How many cheap guys do you know that get drunk?  Did his actions reflect poor judgment?  How many of us always have perfect judgment?  How many times is something considered “OK” until someone gets caught?

So now, his life is ruined, he has disgraced his Country, there is massive outrage.  Why are we so quick to cast stones?

I’m not saying that the whole situation is just fine.  But it doesn’t affect me directly, so why should I get emotional and judgmental and angry about it?  Why do people feel they have to contribute negative energy when situations like this occur?  Why not get thoughtful, rather than emotional?

I know I’m a broken record, but….find the lesson, turn the experience into wisdom.  We don’t have to turn these things into more drama.

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