The moment I stepped off the plane in Bogota I could see that things had changed since my last visit just two years previously.
This is my third time visiting Colombia – the first being in 2008, and the second being in 2010. The reason I have visited this country so frequently – which most other Englishmen (or any ‘Westerner’ for that matter) would do anything to avoid – is that my church back in England is linked with a church here in Bogota. This church has over 150,000 members and counting and has played a major part in the change of a nation which was once renowned for notorious drug cartels, countless kidnappings, political corruption and murder.
My first visit, back in 2008, was a brief one. I came for just one week to attend an international conference which the church here in Bogota – MCI (Misión Carismática Internacional) – hosts every January for the attendance of all members of the churches who are in fellowship with it.
By 2008 the country had already begun to change dramatically. In 2002 Alvaro Uribe began his presidency in which he fought hard against the terrorist FARC who have stained this beautiful nation with the blood of thousands, and also against the corruption within Colombia’s political sphere.
However, during my first visit at just 17, I could sense there was still a definite ambience of danger in the city. The nervousness of the young men, soldiers, who stood clutching machine guns on every street corner; the bulletproof windows in the car of the church’s senior pastor; the acute awareness in the eyes of our guides for the week – these were all hints which pointed at a deep fear entrenched into this nation from decades of guerrilla warfare; a fear which still stirred below the surface of calm which was brought about by the new president.
Upon arrival at the airport on that first visit, we were met at baggage reclaim by guides from the church who swept us through the swelling hordes of people who flocked around the airport’s entrance, straight into a waiting minibus which drove us at high speed directly to our hotel which was guarded by more machine gun holding soldiers and sniffer dogs. Throughout that week we were transported to and from the hotel and the city’s 15,000 seat coliseum in which the conference was held. All I saw of Colombia during that week was a gridlocked motorway through the glass of minibus’s window, the inside of the Radisson hotel, and the coliseum. This said a lot about the apparent state of security in the nation at the time, although it was a vast improvement to the first visit by members of our church in 2003, in which each delegate had their own armed bodyguard during transportation, and snipers on the roof of the hotel.
Between 2008 and 2010 I met Diego, my best friend who I mentioned a few posts ago and who happens to be from Bogota, Colombia. So, in 2010 I returned to Colombia to attend the conference again, only this time with Diego. Instead of staying in a hotel I stayed in his family apartment, instead of staying for just one week a stayed for a month, and instead of seeing only the inside of a coliseum and my accommodation, I was taken around the whole city, and also to other towns. This time there was a change in the atmosphere of the nation. The security, though still extremely present, was visibly more relaxed, and the general mood of the city was a lot more laid back and safe. During this trip I was able to see the real Colombia, and I fell in love with it. I learned that the people of this country are some of the warmest and most respectful in the world. I also learned the hard way to check the flash on your camera before you start taking photos. This was when I thought it would be a good idea to take a photo of a very interesting lady who spent every day of every year outside the airport’s entrance, wearing huge snorkelling goggles, an apron, and pushing around a trolley containing an eclectic collection of goods for sale. When I tried to inconspicuously photograph her, my best efforts of discreetness were foiled when the camera flashed in her face and she chased me through the crowd shouting swearwords in Spanish and trying to ram her trolley of goods into my legs. Okay, so not all Colombians are warm, but it was a valuable lesson learned.
Crazy Trolley Lady - Seconds before the attack!
So, last Tuesday, after travelling for eighteen hours and being interrogated in both London and Miami by airport authorities wanting to know why I was travelling to Colombia alone for four months (they became especially suspicious when they found out I hadn’t found a college or university to attend after I had told them that I was going to study Spanish) I arrived exhausted and for the third time in Bogotá.
The instant I stepped out of the plane I saw that the airport had been transformed since two years earlier, from a dark, dreary and decaying building into a bright, modern port. Light flooded in from the high ceilings of the walkway from the plane to baggage reclaim, and flags from every nation adopting Colombia’s red, yellow and blue welcomed visitors in their own languages to a country which just a few years previously they would have avoided like the plague.
Gone were the intimidating men who once flooded baggage reclaim, demanding to help you with your luggage for a few thousand pesos. Gone was the multitude of street vendors outside the airport doors (including the crazy trolley lady) who you once had to struggle to push through whilst dragging your luggage and trying to protect your pockets simultaneously.
I was impressed at these few changes, as although they may seem insignificant, they make a substantial difference to the first impressions people have of this nation.
I was met at the airport doors by Mateo and Miguel, the two sons of the family I would be staying with for the first few days. They insisted that I allow them to carry my luggage for me to the waiting car, and we drove to their apartment. On the short drive there I noticed many new buildings were being erected everywhere as well as some which were already finished. The apartment I was to stay in was itself part of a brand new building complete with a swimming pool and gym, with parts of it still in construction.
Orlando and Jimena, and their three children Mateo, Miguel and Sharon all treated me like a part of the family from the second I arrived in their home. They took me out for meals, to the cinema, to shopping malls, up a mountain, and showed me around the city. And they gave me food. So much food… I tried to explain to them that I wasn’t used to eating so much but I suppose they just wanted to make me feel welcome. One lunch time I thought they had understood that I preferred a smaller meal when I sat at the table and was presented with just a bowl of chicken soup. I felt glad that I wasn’t about to have to remain at the table for hours after the rest of the family had finished eating, struggling to force down all the food so as not to appear wasteful or ungrateful. However, after the first spoonful of soup they brought out the rest of my meal: a heaped plateful of pasta, another plate with a whole fish covered in a cheese sauce, a whole plantain covered with more cheese, and a plate of arepas (Colombian corn bread). After this was dessert. An hour after I had finally finished this meal I was given a ‘snack’ just in case I was still hungry, of eight different unidentifiable fruits in a bowl. EIGHT. Some of you know that I haven’t eaten a single fruit since perhaps 2003, so this was a real challenge for me.
Anyway, I really enjoyed my first few days with the Castañeda family. They were all so friendly and did everything they could to make me feel welcome.
Three days later I moved to different accommodation as I was joined by some friends from England who came for the conference, including Diego – so, for the last week I have been living in Diego’s aunt’s apartment in the north of the city. It has been fun to spend time with friends from the UK here in Bogotá, and having familiar faces around has helped to ease me into the country gently, rather than arriving here alone and having to make friends from scratch. However, I think I have done quite well so far – Diego was surprised that I was introducing him to people in his own city and church after having arrived here only three days before him.
With some new friends
I have made many new friends from many different countries since arriving here, and I’m having a great time with them all, but I can’t help but feel that half of the time I have been here so far has been spent waiting around in large groups for some unknown occurrence or person. Every day after the conference a group of around 20 of us would meet at the entrance to go to some restaurant or shopping mall that had been agreed on beforehand. However, instead of going to the chosen destination, we end up waiting for at least an hour each time, but no one ever knows what for. I would ask every person “do you know who we’re waiting for?” and every reply would be negative. So I would take initiative and announce to the group “alright, let’s go!” and begin to walk towards the taxis, turning my head after a few paces to find no one following me. After an hour or more of waiting for nothing, some mysterious force compels everyone to finally make their way to the taxis in unison. I can never understand what happens or what gets said that causes everyone to stop waiting, but I have learned to give up wondering. This is Colombia, and it is part of a culture which I need to get used to!
Apart from that, I am enjoying everything about Bogotá. The warmness of both the people and the weather are refreshing to say the least. The mountains that surround the city seem to look down consolingly on the bustling metropolis – looking up from a street streaming with swerving taxis at the silent green mountains offers a somehow comforting contrast. The laid back culture here is something we could learn from back in England, but there needs to be a balance. Waiting hours for nothing is taking it too far!
With some of the group from england, and other new friends
The conference finished yesterday, and everyone from back home will be leaving soon. That is when this trip will begin to feel real to me – when I am here alone in a Spanish speaking nation without Diego to translate for me, and without the comfort of familiar faces around me. But before that happens, I am taking a short trip to Cucuta, the city in which Diego was born, on the border with Venezuela. Bogota is 2640 meters above sea level, so the weather is generally around 18 degrees every day, whereas Cucuta is only 300 meters above sea level, so I can expect temperatures of up to 35 degrees every day. The foreign office advises against all travel to this city, but I am ignoring its advice after seeing how wrong it was about Burkina Faso.
All lonely planet has to say about Cucuta is this:
“Hot, muggy and close to the Venezuelan border, Cúcuta is either the first or last Colombian city that many overland travelers visit. The city has a modern, if rather uninspiring, center and vast poor suburbs. There’s little reason to linger, but you may need to stick around for a night if you’re crossing the border.”
I have also heard from other Colombians that there is not much to do there, but I am looking forward to this trip nonetheless, if only for the warm weather. It will also be nice to meet the rest of Diego’s family. I will let you know how it goes in my next post!