Behind the Pen ∘ Colombia

To accompany our new releases we’re returning to our Behind the Pen series of interviews with the authors of Culture Smart!. In the series we take a closer look at who our authors are, how they became conversant in a culture they were not born into, and what they’ve gained from their cultural experiences abroad.
Meet Kate Cathey – a writer and anthropologist. Born in the USA, she attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she studied Art History, and later the University of California, from which she graduated with a BA in World Arts and Cultures, concentration in Anthropology. Since then, she has traveled extensively in Latin America, researching and writing about regional cultural and culinary traditions.

She has lived in Mexico City, where she attended and wrote about small-town fiestas, ferias, and festivals throughout the country, and studied indigenous gastronomy and ritual at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In 2009, Kate moved to Bogotá, Colombia where she continued these pursuits. She also directed cultural travel programs and was a regular contributor to Bogotá’s English-language newspaper, The City Paper.


Interview with Kate Cathey :

• How did you first come to be involved in Colombia and Colombian culture?
I came to Colombia with my husband and our one year old son for my husband’s work. While my husband worked, my son and I explored. Each morning we set out on foot to discover our new home. We strolled Bogotá’s many parks, stopping along the way for the most delicious coffee. On the way home we would pick up an armful of tropical flowers at the flower market. On weekends we headed to the countryside for grilled meats at one of the many roadside stands or to the tiny colonial towns that dot the landscape. We got to know Colombia through these wanderings. All of the Colombians we met along the way were so eager to help us understand the beauty and the complexity of their country.


• Could you share with our readers an experience you had in Colombia which you think conveys something essential about Colombia and Colombia’s culture?
At that time not too many tourists were visiting Bogotá or the small towns we frequented. The locals welcomed us but were surprised that we were there. I remember a taxi driver on one particular trip that was very chatty. He talked and talked about Colombia’s beauty and all the good things he saw in his country. He was concerned that the international news was dominated by Colombia’s violence and wanted to make sure we took back positive information about Colombia to share with the world. He was so proud of his country but so saddened by the perception of violence and danger that the world had of Colombia. He wanted to world to see Colombia differently. He wanted the world to see Colombia as he saw it, and I was the potential messenger. It was this pride tinged with sadness that touched me because I too began to see Colombia’s beauty that was inseparable from its long history of violence.


• On first arriving to Colombia, did you commit any faux pas? What in your opinion do most foreigner’s get wrong?
I arrived to Colombia with quite a bit of Spanish experience. After taking a six month emersion course in the US and then living in Mexico City for two years, I knew I could communicate in Spanish. But when I got to Colombia, nobody in Bogotá could understand me! I was positive I was speaking Spanish but in Bogotá it was like I was speaking gibberish. I muddled my way through many hilarious conversations. Part of the problem was that I spoke Mexican Spanish, and evidently, that was not the Spanish they spoke in Colombia. And part of it was the formality of the Colombian Spanish.
• Is there a big difference in culture between the younger and older generation of Colombians? What would you say is the young generation’s best cultural asset?
I remember one morning when we had just arrived to Colombia, I was waiting for someone to pick me up. The doorman called up to the house saying that the car had arrived for la doctora, the doctor. I told him that no doctor lived there, that he had the wrong apartment and hung up. The doorman called back and the conversation went on like that a number of times. I never went down to meet the car, and I missed my ride. It only dawned on me later that the doctor they were referring to was actually me! I later learned that ‘doctor’ was used in the most formal and respectful way to address a professional. In Mexico I was a señorita or señora. In Colombia I had become la doctora. Once I put it all together I had a good laugh and I was very late for the appointment!


• What do you miss most about Colombia when you are not there?
The colors and tastes of Colombia stay with me – the fruits, the coffee, the flowers, the hills, the jungle. I loved the amazing variety of tropical fruits: the deep orange passion fruit and their bright intoxicating aroma, the sunny orange uchuva fruit and their strange sourness. The odd taste of uchuva is Colombia to me. I miss the deepest reddish black of blackberries that we bought by the scoopful to make juice – they were so abundant you made juice out of them! I miss the sharp spikey blooms of the heliconia flowers and the plump pink ginger flowers and the fire orange birds of paradise at the flower market in the park. And the many varieties of orchids I had never seen before! There was so many new things to discover in Colombia. That exact color of emerald green of the hills outside of Bogota is always in my head. And of course the many greens of the emeralds themselves that dotted so many store windows. This is how I see Colombia when I remember our life there.


• How would you sum up the Colombians in five words?
Independent. Dignified. Proud. Strong. Festive.


Culture Smart! Colombia is available to buy now (also available as e-book):

Book Details:

    • ISBN: 9781857338867
    • Format: Paperback
    • Page count: 168
    • Dimensions: 171 x 108 x 13mm
    • Published at: £7.99 / $11.99/ CAN $15.99

2 thoughts on “Behind the Pen ∘ Colombia

  1. Just finished your book on Colombia and loved it! It really helped me understand the culture as well as the land itself. My daughter in law is Colombian. Reading your book helped me understand her perspective on life.

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