Belgian Peter van Dijck started a small and simple website about
Colombia when he was there in 1998. Ten years later, Poorbuthappy.com and
its forum have become a leading authority for ex-pats, travelers and
Colombians with hundreds of thousands visitors per month.
The website initially was a testing ground for the programming skills of Van Dijck and a way for him to publish his stories about a country that was still hardly known to travelers and — a lot more than now — had the image of being the guerrilla and drugs anarchy so happily portrayed in movies where Pablo Escobar was king.
“Back then, there was almost nothing about Colombia on the internet, so
people liked my site, however simple it was. I put articles on it about
my experiences in Colombia, about teaching English, about the culture
and so on,” van Dijck says now.
However humble the Belgian may be, his website has become impossible to ignore when looking for information on Colombia and is widely considered the most important website about the country, mostly because of the continuous contribution of its members.
Van Dijck introduced the forum on
the website after leaving Colombia in 2000, making sure the website wouldn’t cease to exist after its
sole writer moved back to Belgium. The forum drew a community years
before creating a community became a marketing hottie.
“Over the years I’ve moved many times, lived in London, New York,
Belgium, had jobs, wrote a book, got married, had a baby. So many times
I would lose sight of the site. Poorbuthappy would still be there,
people would visit it, the forums would still run. I’ve often neglected it or almost
forgotten about it,” he explains.
It was the Colombia-loving community that kept the website alive when Van Dijck was busy slacking.
“I love the community. They talk about the craziest things (where else
can you ask about Indian food in Medellin and actually get an answer?),
and the forums are incredibly active. People get to know each other
there, get inside information, get to express their love of the country,” he says.
Van Dijck, also because he has a day job, a wife and a baby to attend, only wants limited control over the content of the site.
“I can’t read every post, and I can’t tell people what to post. I do my
best to steer it in a direction that I’m happy with, a bit like a
bartender. I welcome people, and try to make them feel at home. I also
have some rules about things that are not allowed (racism, for
example). But people talk about what they want, it’s their life, their
space,” he says.
Because of the “lack” of control, the website has evolved the way it has involved. “People join, stay for a while, then leave. The same topics come back
again and again (visa questions, for example), but new topics also
always surface. I think of it like a bar: people come and go. There are
regulars, and there are occasional visitors. In the end, I hope the
basic feeling continues to be one of sharing,” he explains.
Bartender van Dijck has ideas for the future, despite a chronical lack of time. “I only do this in my spare time, so I can only make little changes now
and then. But over time, I’d like it to be a place for travelers and
locals. That means information for travelers like hostels, it means
different languages, it means everyone having their
space. So lots of ideas. I hope that by it’s 20th birthday, it will still be going strong: good
information, lots of discussions, expats and travelers and locals
talking all together, and fast, easy to use. That’s my goal.”
In the meantime, Van Dijck reluctantly admits “maybe” his website has changed the foreign perception of Colombia. “I don’t know, maybe a few people have gotten more information. I don’t
think a website can change how people think, only other people can. But
in the sense that the site has brought people together, yes, perhaps.”