2 February 2018

Courtenay Strickland - Expat in Colombia

Courtenay Strickland - Expat in Colombia

We’ve had the chance to talk to Courtenay Strickland, 43, an American expat who has moved to Colombia with her family. Ms Strickland, who has been living there for over 5.5 years, now works as an independent communications and development consultant to non-profits and NGOs and also has her own business, C. Strickland Consulting, Inc. and a personal blog: www.barranquillaorbust.com. Read more about her experiences in the full interview below.


Q: Where are you from originally?
A: I’m originally from Cartersville, Georgia – a town outside Atlanta – but I left at age 18 and have since lived in different cities throughout the US. I lived in Miami for 10 years before moving to Colombia.


Q: What made you move out of the US?
A: My then-husband, Gio, and I were already working remotely from Miami. I was looking for a new position, but all the jobs that interested me involved too much travel given that our son was only one year old. When I mentioned my frustration, Gio responded that he’d considered moving to Colombia. Gio was born and raised in Miami, but his parents are from Barranquilla and he had family there that he’d never had the opportunity to get to know. I reacted with enthusiasm – I majored in Latin American Studies in college and had always wanted to live abroad. We saw it as an opportunity for each of us to achieve individual goals, as well as a chance for our son to get to know Colombia and his family there.


Q: Where are you living now? How did you come to choose this new country of residence?
A: I currently live in Medellín. Because of my academic background, Latin America was a natural choice. Colombia made sense because of my ex-husband’s family ties. We moved originally to Barranquilla to get to know the family there, and because we knew we’d benefit from their guidance in getting settled. Moving abroad as a freelancer or small business owner is different than moving as an employee of a government or a corporation; Gio’s family was a huge support. We later moved to Medellín after visiting and falling in love with the nearby coffee region.


Q: How long have you been living in Colombia?
A: Just over 5.5 years.


Q: Are you living alone or with your family? If yes, how are they adjusting to the Expat Lifestyle?
A: Although Gio and I are no longer together, we have both remained in Medellín. I now live with my six-year-old son. We have a housekeeper who stays with us most of the time, along with her eight-year-old daughter. They are part of our family.


Q: Do you miss home and family sometimes? How do you cope with homesickness?
A: When we first moved to Colombia, Gio had to travel to the US a lot, and I went through a major period of homesickness. For me, one antidote was to cultivate at least one place where I felt like a regular. In my case, that was the coffee shop down the street. Just having a place to go with familiar faces made a difference. I now consider Medellín home, and miss it a lot when I’m in the US. However, as an only child, I often worry about my parents and family and how to be there for them in the event they need me as they age.


Q: What do you think about the locals?
A: Colombians are very, very friendly and welcoming to foreigners and always ready to help. That said, the culture varies greatly among Colombia’s cities and regions, so it’s hard to generalize.


Q: Was it easy making friends and meeting people? Do you mainly socialise with other expats in Colombia? How did you manage to find a social circle there?
A: At first, I socialized mainly with expats, but now I have local friends too. In Medellín in particular, making local friends often takes longer than expected. Since paisas (people from Medellín and the surrounding region) are so welcoming and helpful, many foreigners think it will be really easy to make friends. But most people here have a very established social circle, so while they offer incredible hospitality, they aren’t necessarily searching for new close friends. Also, in bars, people tend to arrive with their own group and leave with that group – mixing and mingling is not as common as in the US. But that said, I have wonderful friends now and understand that as someone arriving from the outside, it is my responsibility to make that happen. As a newcomer, it requires effort, but that’s okay.


Q: How does the cost of living in Colombia compare to your home?
A: For people earning US dollars, the cost of living in Colombia is much cheaper than in the US, and the quality of life is excellent. But cost varies significantly city to city. For example, Barranquilla is significantly cheaper than Medellín, and Bogotá is much more expensive. To save money, buy Colombian products whenever possible (not imports).

Q: How much is a cup of coffee?
A: Depends on where. At a Colombian restaurant or chain, a cup of coffee might be anywhere from $0.30 USD to $2.00 USD. Coffee from a street vendor costs a few cents. Starbucks and high-end coffee shops are expensive, just as one would expect.

Q: How much is a meal in an inexpensive restaurant?
A: If you know where to go, hot lunch with salad, rice, soup, protein, and a drink can be had for around $3.00 to $6.00 USD. This varies by city, though, and even by neighborhood. Lunch at an “inexpensive” restaurant in Medellín’s El Poblado district costs a lot more than lunch at an inexpensive restaurant in a neighborhood like Floresta.

Q: How much is a meal in an expensive restaurant?
A: With alcohol included, it could be as much as $50.00 USD or more.

Q: How much is a bottle of wine? How about a pack of cigarettes?
A: Wine is expensive because Colombia does not produce wine and import taxes are high. A bottle that might cost $6.00 in the US is likely to cost around $10.00 USD in Colombia. I don’t know the price of cigarettes.


Q: Do you have any tips for future expats when it comes to opening a bank account in Colombia?
A: Shop around. The requirements for opening an account vary from bank to bank. Some banks are friendlier to foreigners who are not employed by a Colombian company than others. If you’re employed within Colombia, then it’s usually pretty easy to open an account most anywhere. If you plan to stay in the country long-term, then you should open an account soon after arriving and also take steps to begin building credit. Be sure to register with Colombian credit agencies – Datacrédito Experian and TransUnion. In some cases this will happen automatically, but in my case, since my company is based in the US and I don’t yet have Colombian clients, I wasn’t registered and for a long time could not figure out why I didn’t qualify for credit of any sort.


Q: How will you describe your experience with government paperwork such as applications for Visa and work permits? Why is that so?
A: Wish I had better news on this front! All paperwork can be a real pain. Right now, I’m trying to validate my university degree with Colombia’s Ministry of Education. It has been a months-long process already, and it’s not done. A lot of processes are improving, though. For example, it used to take months between applying for a cédula de extranjería (the ID card for foreigners) and actually receiving the card, but now it’s available in about a week. For other processes, it’s often possible to pay a lawyer, accountant, or messenger to handle a lot of the paperwork for you. For paperwork requiring a trip to Bogotá, they can often help you avoid having to buy a plane ticket and go yourself. Paying for services like these is often well worth the money, particularly if – like me – you’re paid by the hour.


Q: Would you say that healthcare in Colombia is reliable? Any preferred clinics or advice for expats?
A: The healthcare is pretty darn great as long as you purchase private health insurance that will allow you to avoid having to wait for an appointment, get referrals for specialists, etc. My ex-husband, son, and I have all had surgery in Colombia and the experiences were good. Doctors will often give you their cell phone numbers, which is helpful if you have a young child or a serious issue. Doctors also seem to rely somewhat less on tests but have a very good clinical sense of what might be going on with a patient. In Medellín, the wait to get an appointment with top doctors can be long – they stay really booked – but on the upside, when you arrive for your appointment, you’ll usually see the doctor on time. Prescriptions often include natural remedies as well as pharmaceuticals. Pharmacies make home deliveries 24/7, which is a blessing when you’re sick.


Q: Did you secure a health insurance in the US or Colombia? What should be the essentials in the coverage for expats, in your opinion?
A: I secured coverage in Colombia. For people who freelance or own their own business, the affordable cost of top-of-the-line health insurance (compared to the US) is amazing. In my case, I wanted to be able to go to any doctor without having to get a referral, and plans like that were readily available. I also sought out a plan that provided ample international coverage, so I didn’t have to buy a supplemental policy if my son and I were in the US. Having the international coverage has definitely been worth it. I’ve used it multiple times.


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Q: What was the most memorable about the packing and moving process to Colombia? Which was the mover you chose and how was your experience with them?
A: Unfortunately, our shipment from the US was left out in the rain for more than two weeks after it arrived in Colombia. We lost about a third of everything we shipped and had to spend weeks cleaning and rehabilitating the rest. (Everything grew mold in the Barranquilla heat). It wasn’t fun, but we got through it.


Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a new expat?
A: One thing people should be aware of is that renting an apartment for the long-term, e.g., six months to a year or more, can be complicated in Colombia. You will not have credit history in Colombia – it will be as if you are 17-years-old again. For a long-term rental, you’ll need co-signers (co-deudores as they’re called here), and not just anyone qualifies – the person usually needs to own real estate and make a certain percentage more per month than the monthly rent. If you can’t find qualified co-signers, you will need to put down a lot of cash as a big security deposit (though they don’t call it that). For our first apartment, we had to open a CD in the amount of nearly 10 months’ rent, and we still had to pay monthly rent as usual. We got the 10 months back, plus interest, when we moved out two years later, but it definitely put us in a pinch when we first arrived. Fortunately, for our next apartment, we were able to get co-signers. Jumping through all the hoops is a definite deterrent to moving. If you have a lot of disposable cash, there’s no problem. If you don’t, it can be tough.


Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in Colombia?
A: Colombia routinely ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world, and in my opinion, that seems mostly true. People tend to put a very high value on relaxing with their family and just hanging out with friends. By my observation, that often trumps the drive to make money, which can be confusing for foreigners who are used to a different set of priorities. But once you get used to it, it feels really, really good – like a great way to live. It can require a lot of patience, though, if you’re used to a high level of efficiency.


Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Any particular recommendations for future expats?
A: The Colombian countryside is absolutely amazing. From Medellín, it’s possible to take innumerable fantastic day or weekend trips. To the east, there’s the town of Guatapé and a natural rock formation, El Peñol. To the south, the town of Jardín, with its horses and waterfalls and tropical birds, takes the cake. To the west, the old state capital of Santa Fe de Antioquia offers colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, as well as hotels with “pool days” since the weather on that side of the mountains is very hot. I could go on and on. My advice – and I say this in spite of being a definite city girl – is to get out of the city and explore.


Q: Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?
A: I have no plans to leave Medellín – it feels good to be rooted here – but I’m always open to new possibilities.


Q: What tips will you give to expats living in the country?
A: Pack a lot of patience, including patience with yourself, because you will need it, and plan to travel extensively within Colombia. It’s a large and varied country with amazing places to see and very reasonable prices for domestic travel.


Q: Do you have favourite websites or blogs about Colombia?
A: For activities in Medellín, I like Catalyst Weekly, which has its own list of top blog sites. For Colombia in general, I like BananaSkinFlipFlops.com and journalist Richard McColl’s blog and podcast at richardmccoll.com. Facebook is a great source for information and activities. A lot of businesses and organizations don’t have websites but do have Facebook pages and will often post events via that channel. It’s definitely worth looking up events and activities on there. If you’re trying to find apartments and that sort of thing online from outside Colombia, be sure to search in Spanish and use Google Colombia – your results will be a lot better. Good luck!