“If you ever get lost, walk towards the mountains” were the words my mum said to my dad when he arrived in Bogotá.
Irishman Cormac couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams that he’d end up living in Colombia when he met his future wife Adriana in Oxford. With little to no knowledge of the country, and after a couple of years into the relationship, he decided quite impulsively to pack his bags and go after Adriana, or Adie as he calls her.
Family members urged him not to come, quoting news headliners about the dangers he’d probably face. He didn’t care.
Back in Oxford he’d done the RSA Royal Society of Arts certificate in English Teaching as preparation for coming here. His plan had been to work in the British Council, but he didn’t have enough experience.
Thanks to Adie’s job in hotel management they ended up living on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The Caribbean sounded so exotic to him, “the closest you can get to paradise”, he thought. But the grass looks greener from the other side, and once he got there his dream of paradise was shattered.
“The Caribbean” was actually Barranquilla, which was at that time a terrible excuse for a city. The sun was (and still is) the reason for the red on Cormac’s formerly pale and freckly face. You could definitely spot the only Irishman in town from miles away.
A year living in hell on earth, the recently married couple went through tough times. They were both working as English teachers, but sometimes they could only afford bananas. That’s all they had for breakfast lunch and dinner.
But there was one more thing: The language barrier. When he arrived in Colombia, Cormac didn’t speak a word of Spanish, but that didn’t seem to be a problem here in Colombia. He said “[…] in fact [not speaking Spanish] wasn’t as much of a hindrance as you’d imagine. Here there was a huge tolerance for not speaking Spanish, because Colombians in general seemed at the time, and even still today, almost honoured that a foreigner would come to their country. I always had that kind of feeling that they would make any allowance for a foreigner. They felt happy that a foreigner would come to their country. The lack of language was usually considered to be charming.”
Having no Spanish to get by, Cormac relied on Adie almost completely. He tells stories of how when he needed to argue with someone Adie would say whatever he said but in a toned down voice. It didn’t have the same effect, so that’s when he saw how necessary it was to learn the language. Whenever he took buses he’d take the one that headed towards the mountains, and asked someone to tell him when to get off.
Life for an Irishman in Colombia in the nineties wasn’t a walk in the park. He explains:
“It was lonely. There was no cable tv, there was no internet so not speaking Spanish you were very isolated. The only people I invited to my wedding I only invited because they spoke English”. “I remember speaking to Donald Bradley, a close family friend from Ireland, the morning of my wedding and I think I cried. To hear a voice in an accent that I had heard my whole life… it was very emotional”.
At that time there were very few foreigners in Colombia, and almost no knowledge of anything that wasn’t the US. “People would consider you to be gringo, American. There was no real appreciation of Ireland, no knowledge of Ireland. Even to these days in taxis, you say “Irlanda” and people understand “Holanda” and even “Islandia”, it was incredible how a taxi driver even knew “Islandia” existed.”
Everything changed the moment he started working in the British Council. His social life changed completely, he was finally amongst British and Irish people.
“Basically the British council is what established me in my profession as a teacher, then eventually gave me the confidence to start my own business.”
Nowadays he’s got his own teaching business, and even though he struggles to pronounce the double r, he gets by alright. He doesn’t need to know where the mountains are to get home anymore.