The living room in the apartment where Nataly Puerta Cavanzo (36) lives with her German flatmate is empty apart from two chairs and two desks pushed together. On the improvised table are a floral tablecloth and a wine glass containing sweets. However, despite the emptiness of the apartment, Nataly is full of enthusiasm when she walks in with a full tray in her hands. ‘Tea and cookies!’ she beams.
Nataly always knew she wanted to do medical research, but in Colombia there’s not much research going on. So, after finishing secondary school when she was 18, she started at medical school. ‘Medical school takes eight years in Colombia. After that I travelled and started working as a general practitioner to repay my university loan’, she explains as the steam from the tea billows across her face. ‘After a few years, however, I started to realize that I really didn’t like being a doctor. I didn’t like being in the clinic with the patients and I decided I had to do what made me happy. So, I started to do research internships in the USA to get experience and applied for several Master’s programmes.’
Nataly grew up in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, with her mother and two younger sisters. Her father was in the Navy and her mother worked as a psychologist.
The city is huge with eight million inhabitants. However, the inequality between them is huge too and for Nataly it is a daily reality.
‘I kept asking my Dutch classmates “Where are your poor people?” When they said that there weren’t any really poor people, that was very strange for me. I really didn’t understand. I’m used to the difference’, she says.
The inequality had its consequences, though. When Nataly was 15, a period of conflict began. At least 70,000 people were killed in the conflicts that lasted five to seven years. Another three to four million people lost their homes and tens of thousands of civilians were tortured or kidnapped.
‘You had to be very careful in those days’, Nataly says. ‘There was always the risk of being kidnapped and bombs were going off everywhere. It was frightening. You never knew where the next bomb was going to explode, but you always heard it. There was an awful noise and then windows started to rattle and you knew another bomb had gone off. You couldn’t stop living your life, though. You just had to wait for things to get better.’
The Biomedical student thinks that the conflicts made her more determined to carry on with life, no matter what. ‘I tried like crazy to get here and now I’m here. It was really difficult. I didn’t have any money, so I had to ask for a lot of loans and work really hard to pay them off. But I always stayed positive and I don’t know if I’d have done that without all the conflicts in Colombia.’
However, since the installation of a new government Colombia has changed completely. ‘People think you can buy cocaine on every street corner and that there’s a big risk of being robbed, but that’s not true’, she says while breaking a biscuit into small pieces. ‘Of course you have to be more careful than here, as it’s a city with eight million people, but it’s not really dangerous anymore.’
The biggest difference between Bogota and Groningen is the tranquillity of the Dutch city. In Bogota there’s always a lot of noise. Nataly loves the peace and quiet when she’s studying or resting.
However, she has also noticed that Colombians are more open and friendlier than the Dutch. ‘It’s hard for me to have any real contact with Dutch people. They are quite aloof when you don’t know them. I think it’s mostly the language barrier, so I’m taking Dutch classes and hope that will help.’
After she finishes her Master’s, Nataly would love to return home. However, as that’s unlikely, she will continue to live and work abroad.
Isn’t that a strange feeling, not going back to living with your family and friends in your own country again? All of a sudden Nataly goes quiet. ‘I never thought about it that way’, she says. ‘It’s normal for upper-class Colombians to live and study abroad for a while. However, they usually return home after completing their studies.’
Nevertheless, she believes she’ll manage. ‘The first ten times I said goodbye to my friends or family at the airport were awful, but since then I’ve got used to it. I see my old high-school friends once a year. Actually, I think we wouldn’t know what to do if we were living next to each other.’