'Colombia dangerous? It's Britain we find intimidating'

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Expats seem able to ignore the civil war and drug battles to enjoy a vibrant culture and a hospitable people. Martin Whittaker reports

Mention Colombia and what images does it conjure up? The chances are they will include terrorism, political violence, drugs andor kidnapping. The capture and subsequent release by Marxist rebels of a group of hostages, including a British television producer, Mark Henderson, before Christmas brought the South American country into sharp focus.

While the media has debated the safety of travelling into such conflict zones, and the Foreign Office has strengthened its travel warnings, for Britons teaching there, life goes on. "British expatriates in Colombia had little sympathy for the backpackers who were recently kidnapped," says Joe Docherty, director of the British Council Colombia, based in the capital Bogota. "They chose to ignore very clear Foreign Office travel advice not to venture off the beaten track outside the main urban centres."

After five happy years here, Mr Docherty and his family are about to move on to Tunisia, where he will be British Council director. He says his only regret is that security fears have meant he has not been able to visit centres of the pre-Colombian Muisca civilisation in the country's interior.

Security and the risk of kidnapping by guerrilla groups is a serious issue in Colombia. It is reckoned to have the world's worst record for kidnappings - there were 2,492 in 2002. The country is embroiled in a long and bloody civil war, which is estimated to have caused the deaths of between 3,000 and 4,000 civilians in 2002. It also has high levels of crime, much of it linked to the drug trade.

While the threat of terrorism and kidnap effectively confine expat teachers to the big cities, the Foreign Office also warns of dangers there, citing a number of attacks in the capital. A year ago the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia bombed a club in downtown Bogota, killing 33 and injuring 157 people. And last November there was a grenade attack on two bars in an expatriate area of Bogota, leaving two dead and more than 70 injured.

But such risks do not seem to be deterring people from wanting to teach there. The British Council in Bogota, which employs teachers of English as a foreign language, says they can enjoy a modern lively city with good living conditions, shopping, entertainment, excellent medical care and a low cost of living, as well as a mild climate and spectacular scenery.

Mr Docherty says life in the capital is comfortable and hospitable.

"Teachers are often surprised just how European it feels," he says. "The majority of British teachers choose to renew their contracts, and the British Council has never had problems in recruiting for our centres in Colombia."

The country has a number of international schools accredited by the European Council of International Schools. One of them is the Colegio Anglo Colombiano, a private school in the suburbs of northern Bogota. It provides bilingual British-style education to students aged from four to eighteen, and offers the International Baccalaureate programme. Its students are mainly the elite of Colombian society, and the school is superbly equipped, with three full-sized football pitches, basketball, tennis and netball courts, two gymnasiums, a modern 800-seat theatre, and good ICT facilities.

David Goddard, 32, is deputy head and his partner, Gillian Dear teaches science and co-ordinates maths in the school. They both stress the benefits of teaching in Bogota over any anxieties they may have about security.

The private school is full of open spaces and greenery, where you can see humming birds flitting among tropical plants from the classroom window.

"We chose Colombia as we wanted to travel in South America and to learn Spanish," says Ms Dear, also 32. They have managed to achieve both goals, and in four years have visited a huge list of places including the Galapagos Islands, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina.

"Bogota is not the world's most modern city," she says, "but it is most certainly vibrant and colourful, with numerous street markets, top-of-the- range shopping centres and international restaurants all framed by majestic Andean peaks."

Housing is cheap and plentiful, with a range of apartments and houses near the school, which provides a generous housing budget. The couple have a large four-bedroom colonial-style house with a maid, in a private street with 24-hour-a-day guards. It costs less than pound;200 a month.

Teachers' salaries are much lower than in Britain. Despite being a deputy head, Mr Goddard earns the equivalent of a class teacher in the UK. But the cost of living is very low. Mr Goddard and Ms Dear say that each year they manage to take on average three main holidays for up to a month at a time.

Other pluses they cite include the country's music, dancing and museums, cheap and easy access to doctors and dentists - and the Colombian people themselves. "The people here act with such grace and politeness," says Mr Goddard, from Cowbridge, south Wales. "In four years we have not witnessed even one act of aggression. When we return home to Britain we see aggressive behaviour constantly, and it makes it a quite intimidating place to visit."

He insists anyone thinking of teaching in Colombia should read as much as possible about the political situation and make an informed decision about whether it is the right country for them.

But, he says, they are not blind to the country's violence and acts of terrorism. Security fears have not stopped them travelling widely, although they say they never take risks.

"Everyone here knows someone who knows someone who has been held up, or even taken by one of the main terrorist groups on the roads or at night," he says. "Therefore, we travel by aeroplane for long journeys and in the day we take buses. We have taxi drivers who we always use who are reliable and safe, and we rarely venture from the beaten path.

"It may be that we are biased because we have lived here for so long now, but to us it is the most beautiful and exciting country in the world."

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