Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Colombian Adventure: The Beginning...

June 18-19: Buenos Aires-Lima-Bogota (6,000km, 1 stop-over, 8 hours)

After a delayed start (we were supposed to fly on the 17th in the early morning, but our oldest daughter Edie got sick so we had to postpone our flight for 36 hours), and a mostly pleasant flight via Lima, we arrived in Bogota around 01.00am Saturday morning, June 19.

Getting off the plane and walking through the airport, one still feels the remainders of Colombia’s recent past; military are predominantly present, you feel you are being watched and controls are thorough. The lady at the money exchange is most definitely not the nicest person in the world (but who would be sitting there at that time of night) and in order to change 60 USD, one needs to fill in a form as if applying for a US visa, including hotel address, personal signature and fingerprints.

But that is just one side of things. Overall, people are friendly, very friendly. Most Colombians we encountered are genuinely happy with the fact foreigners come to see their country now; that they can show what they have. They do not only try to make you feel at home, or make sure you are safe; they are open and direct, honest and reality-driven. And on top of that, they are funny. Colombian humor, though black at times, seems to be what has pulled this nation and its people through its darker recent times. I am sure we will have a great time here, this time, and all the times in the future when we will come back to visit, and set up our office.

Colombia makes me think of Peru 15 years ago. Leaving behind a long period of civil unrest, the country is cautiously opening up its doors to the outside. People go out of their way to make sure you know you can travel here, that you should be careful, but not worry too much about safety; that the safety situation these days is similar to that of most countries in the continent. Hotels in Bogota still have small warning pamphlets in the rooms and the streets are crowded with police and military, but the atmosphere is joyful, busy, aimed forward. It is obvious this country is ready for a new era, an era of peace and connectivity with the rest of the world.

The capital, no, the whole country seems to be under construction; roads are blocked everywhere, not because of safety regulations, but because they are being repaired, widened, improved. Colombians are traveling outside the safety of their immediate environment and most of the streets in Bogota, and the main roads in many parts of surrounding Colombia, are teeming with traffic. All the work being done means delays at present, but soon traffic will be able to flow freely through a country that has been waiting to be explored for so long.

June 19: Bogota – Villa de Leyva (180km, 4hs)

We drove To Villa de Leyva yesterday afternoon, some 4 hours by car from Bogota. Only 180km separate the two towns, and most of it is (going to be) 4-lane highway, but due to uncountable road construction sites and the above mentioned traffic we hit an average of 50kmph, more or less. No problem at all of course; we are exploring Colombia, at last! First impression is that Colombia will make an excellent driving country, but for now this will be restricted. Car rental companies are mainly small and operate locally only; drop off fees do not exist or are forbiddingly high. Next to that hardly anybody speaks English and the recently introduced Satellite Navigation Systems do not have the maps of the country properly loaded yet. This will all change soon, no doubt, but for now we feel Colombia is a great country to visit either in a group with a bilingual tour conductor, or individually with a private guide and driver.

Villa de Leyva is a colonial dream town set in magical, cloud-forest-covered mountains and surrounded by numerous national parks home to geological, natural and historical treasures, most of them still inaccessible to the average visitor. We stay in the quaint, colonial style Hotel La Candelaria, on the northern end of town, an old mansion recently converted into this beautiful, 8-room boutique hotel.

June 20, Villa de Leyva

The main thing that made this trip, and our ten-year dream of opening an office here, feasible is Colombia’s newly found safety, wrought by leaving president, Alvaro Uribe, and his government of the past eight years. Today is Election Day and we talk to local people in the town of Villa de Leyva about who they will vote for.

Something truly phenomenal is happening here in Colombia. After decades of complete political uncertainty and lack of proper leadership, eight-years ago Alvaro Uribe came along, and ever since has been busy putting the country back on the geo-political map. Today, thanks to an absolutely fantastic, worldwide rebranding campaign, foreigners know Colombia as the country where “the only risk is that you’ll want to stay”, something opposite to its reputation in the recent past. Traveling here I can understand why this slogan was chosen. However, it would never have gotten hold had the country not been truly reorganized, safety returned to its streets and hope and trust restored in its people. I came to Colombia for the first time in 1992, at the end of the same 4-month trip that took me to Peru as well. Both countries were in similar circumstances then. Peru emerged from terrorism and uncertainty in 1995-96, when the Shining Path was largely silenced and its leader, Abimael Guzman, captured, by then president Alberto Fujimori. From that moment on, Peru slowly opened itself up to the outside world and, as mentioned before, our experiences there in those days have many similarities to what we see and hear in Colombia today.

Another impressive feat for a country so freshly back on track is the fact that today Colombians have the option to choose between two outstanding candidates for the Presidency: former Defense Minister and Uribe’s favorite, Juan Manuel Santos, and former Mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus, preferred by the country’s students. Both candidates have a formidable political agenda, are very well prepared for the job and most countries’ people in this continent should consider themselves proud and very lucky to have the opportunity to choose only one of them. How Colombia managed to produce the political strength and vigor it shows in its current president and the two candidates to follow him, requires a deep political analysis, that has no place (yet?) in this story, but the mere fact earns Colombia and its people a lot of credit and respect. It also shows that Colombians are done with the past and ready for change, ready for a future that is in their hands - exciting times, for sure.

June 21, Villa de Leyva – Bogota

Pfff, seems the time difference is affecting the kids more than normally. They keep waking up around 4.30-5am, which even when corrected to their natural clocks (2 hours later), is very, very early. Must be the clean mountain air or something… Bueno, at least it gives me some time to write until breakfast is served. Let me finish where I left off yesterday:

The end of Election Day showed another interesting feature of Colombian thinking. After Mr. Mockus had initially sprung up in the polls to potentially win the elections, the first round showed a favorable position for Mr. Santos, something that was confirmed when the majority of the votes were accounted for and he was elected as Colombia’s next President. Today is “ley seca”; it is forbidden to drink alcohol in public from 24 hours before until right after the elections, so our waiter is serving our beer in teacups and hiding the bottles. He says: “I am a student and Mockus is by far my favorite because he is a former teacher himself and has vouched to bring education back to the top ranks of the political agenda. But today it is just a little early for Mr. Mockus to take the stand, we are still living uncertain times and safety needs to be restored completely before we can start thinking about further reforms. Mr. Santos has the better cards to make sure that Colombia becomes a safe and stable nation. Without safety we are nowhere; without safety we cannot move on. That is why I chose Santos today; I want my country to be safe. Next round will hopefully be for Mr. Mockus.”

For me this clarifies what is happening here; Colombian people are not only done with the past and ready for the future to be in their hands; they are also very carefully handling that new-found responsibility, and moving cautiously to make sure that today will truly mark the continuance of change for the better, and that a solid base will be created to build that future upon. We have seen many bad examples of political manipulation for ourselves over the past 15 years, so being here and listening to the people, seeing how they truly take up the task of making sure they get the right representation for this time, feels like a breath of fresh air. This country is getting ready for a bright future and we sure want to be here when it happens.