Like the 60s-era rock group Steppenwolf, Dunwoody High School alum Robin Wertheim Tolochko and her husband, Jerry Tolochko, were “looking for adventure.” In August 2010, instead of taking Steppenwolf’s advice to “head out on the highway,” the couple boarded a jet plane to Bogotá, Colombia, in northwestern South America.
They weren’t sure what opportunities awaited them. After discovering a leather workshop down the street from their apartment, a new passion was transformed into the dream-come-true they were seeking. This summer, they launched the website Restrepo Leather to market the high-quality handmade bags produced at the workshop. Another DHS graduate, Avery White, joined the Tolochkos in their new venture.
Robin Tolochko and White credit their DHS Spanish teacher, Clarissa Adams-Fletcher, with encouraging their sense of adventure.
“Robin was excited about Spanish and took every opportunity to learn about other cultures,” said Adams-Fletcher, who is the DHS world languages department head. “Avery told me it shaped the way she looked at the world, and that’s exactly what I want to do – change their perspectives.”
As an example for current students, Adams-Fletcher created a Facebook page for former students to share their adventures. “Language is the vehicle you can use to realize what you haven’t even imagined,” she said.
The Tolochkos, both 26, moved to Bogotá after living in Washington, D.C., following their 2008 graduation from the University of Georgia.
“I always talked about living abroad,” said Robin. Jerry, a graduate of the Atlanta International School who is fluent in French and Spanish, had an interest in all things international. The couple first met on a humanitarian trip to Cuba during high school. Robin spent one summer in Quito, Ecuador, Colombia’s neighbor to the south.
They chose Colombia for several reasons, Robin said. They wanted to live in a city, work on their Spanish and not be too far away from their families in metro Atlanta. (A non-stop flight from Atlanta to Bogotá takes five hours. The two cities are in the same time zone, but Daylight Saving Time is not observed in Bogotá.) Through Atlanta friends from Colombia, they compiled a list of people to contact in Bogotá.
With savings amassed while working in the U.S., they settled into central Bogotá’s La Macarena neighborhood in.
“Let’s take a sabbatical and see what happens,” Robin said of their decision not to seek employment right away.
The Tolochkos have come to love their neighborhood and Colombia.
“The people are extremely nice. [La Macarena] feels like a small town in a big city. We know all the shop owners and people say ‘hi,’” said Robin, adding that drives from Bogotá in any direction lead to different climates caused by varying elevations. Robin and Jerry both say they love the fresh fruit.
After five months, the Tolochkos started giving English lessons. They both also went back to work full-time. Robin works on data visualizations and mapping for a Bogotá think tank and Jerry is in corporate public relations and communications.
“We were blown away by the quality of their handmade bags,” said Robin about the workshop near their apartment. She and Jerry signed up for leather-working classes and in addition to learning a new skill they became part of a community headed by the workshop’s owner, Cesar Giraldo.
They decided to start Restrepo Leather so sell Giraldo’s creations in the U.S. and Canada via the Internet. A U.S.-Colombia trade agreement enacted in May 2012 eliminated duty on the exported merchandise.
“The workshop has been selling products in Colombia for many years but there’s not much room for growth [because] Internet shopping has not taken off yet in Colombia,” said Robin. “We wanted to help people gain access to the products and help the workshop to grow and hire more people.”
Robin and Jerry kept their day jobs and work on Restrepo business in the evening. White, 25 and a UGA graduate, moved to Bogotá after learning about the Tolochkos’ plan to start Restrepo. She is the director of creative content for the website. She had previously worked in Brazil as a photographer, in Buenos Aires as an artist and travel writer and in La Paz, Bolivia, as a documentary filmmaker.
“I love Bogotá because there’s always a sense of the sky’s the limit here,” White said. “This city is brimming with energy and it’s a real inspiration to be around.”
White and the Tolochkos aren’t the only U.S. ex-pats living in Bogotá. “There are lots of Americans and lots of American businesses,” said Robin. Added Jerry, “Just in the last six months, a bunch of Georgians moved here.”
Exact numbers aren’t available.
“The Department of State does not maintain statistics on the number of American citizens visiting or living in a particular country as American citizens are not required to inform the United States government of their travel,” said State Department spokesperson John E. Echard, Jr.
“The department only maintains an estimate which we do not publicly release because the information is for emergency planning purposes. We do suggest that when Americans travel overseas that they inform our embassy or consulate of their presence through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program so that they can receive information from the embassy or consulate,” Amidst the excitement and adventure of living in a foreign country and starting a new business, there are a few things the Tolochkos miss about the U.S., foremost their families and friends. Robin’s parents, Brian and Alice Wertheim, still live in the Dunwoody home where Robin grew up, as do Jerry’s parents Patrick and Cindy Tracy of Atlanta. On a lighter note, Jerry said he misses college football.
“None of our parents were surprised that we would move to another country,” said Robin, adding that they were very supportive.
Robin said they don’t expect their Colombia residency to be permanent. “When we moved here we never anticipated we’d start a company,” she said. “It was fun to see where life took us.”
Restrepo leather bags for men and women are available at restrepoleather.com.
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