Two Business Lessons Learned In The Former Drug Capital Of The World

Recently, I took a vacation in what was once one of the most dangerous countries in the world: Colombia. The country is much safer than it was in the 1990s and 2000s, but visiting places not usually on the tourist track taught me key business and life lessons.

Think Before Acting on a Bank Robbery
One morning, I sat in a taxi in the city of Santa Martha, waiting in traffic. I looked out the window at a bank, and saw two large men, with puffed chests. One man carried an Old West pistol, the other a fully racked shotgun. Both pointed them straight ahead, at the bank.

I sat in my taxi, three feet away, hairs rising on the back of my neck. In the United States, police officers never have their guns drawn unless there is an immediate threat. I was about to witness a bank robbery.

The leader with the pistol put his back against the bank’s door, and held his pistol to his chest. It was identical to an old John Wayne movie where the bad guy puts his back against the door, looks in, then jumps in, guns blazing.

Except the leader didn’t jump in. And nobody but me paid him any mind. Was he a gangster? Some drug lord’s disciple?

I finally caught on. He was a police officer. Having visited almost every continent except South America, I wasn’t aware that his behavior is normal protocol throughout most of the continent.

The Lesson: In life and in business, ensure that what you think is true, really is true.

Sometimes this assumption is as simple as how much a relocation, project or assignment will cost, while other times it can be a cultural assumption of what something means or implies. Not doing so might have a cost — for you, or your company.
Don’t Forget The Pesos
My girlfriend and I flew to a tiny Colombian island in the Caribbean called San Andres. San Andres has typical Caribbean luster – crystal, turquoise water, a local population, sting rays, colorful fish and hot sun. We decided to take a day trip to a reef and island group called Cayo Bolivari, about an hour away. We were told the entire trip was included in the price we paid at the hotel, so we didn’t bring much money with us.After relaxing on the beach for a while, one of the tour guides said, “OK, time to go snorkeling.” We were really excited, since we knew we would see wildlife.

After having a nurse shark swim between our legs and getting a taste of that crystal Caribbean water, the guide brought us back and said “Okay, 10,000 pesos for the tour.”


“10,000 pesos.”

Yet, we had been told everything was included. And it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Everywhere we went, we found invisible fine print, requiring an additional fee. It left us frustrated and angry.

The Lesson: Consider what is not being said in a business deal, relocation, or expat assignment. What might you be missing?

For example, “accompanying partners” have always experienced challenges when relocating. Yet, they have only received much more specialized industry attention in recent years because the value of addressing those challenges is now recognized.

Consider all of the “X” factors. What isn’t obvious? What’s not being said?

 By Alexander Heyne, Project Manager, Living Abroad