One tires of the smirks, the knowing glances and the telltale finger tap to the side of the nose that inevitably greet your revelation in the pub in London that you live in Colombia. How incredibly dull to have to justify my lifestyle in South America and explain to pub acquaintances that I am not, in fact, a coke fiend. And no, I am not worried about getting kidnapped right as I step off the plane onto the jet way.
Colombia suffers from a major image problem, this is well documented here, Colombia es Pasion was the first slogan, feathering into that of Colombia, El Unico Riesgo es que Quieres Quedar and now we have La Respuesta es Colombia…all hopeful, all positive and all in their own way a successful and an attractive marketing ploy.
The last six years here have been almost entirely dedicated to an uphill slog in improving and altering Colombia’s image. I have participated in heated discussions with editors who felt that travel articles about the Eje Cafetero were too edgy and offbeat not to mention dangerous. These very same editors have now been commissioning advertorial fluff carefully manicured and dressed up as authentic journalism about the same regions. How times change.
Sure, I write news articles and my outlook on Colombia varies from one extreme to the other depending on what I am researching or investigating or what bureaucratic nightmare I am confronting being a small business owner. However, I like to think my overall contribution is balanced.
But, I think there is an element to Colombia’s image problem that has yet to be addressed and that is how Colombians themselves see their country. Yes, there are many who sing the country’s praises from up on high and there are those working hard to instill a sense of community and belonging, and perhaps nothing has been more unifying to Colombia than the recent ruling on the waters around the archipelago of San Andres ceded just yesterday (November 19 2012) to Nicaragua by the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Read more about this on Colombia Politics.
I don’t need to be convinced on Colombia, I live here. I think that a grand portion of Colombians need to be reassured about the potential of their country and the possibilities open to them here. Travelers will come and go, and travel they will, the length and breadth of this nation within reason. But a Colombian will visit Cartagena, Santa Marta and then probably in every other holiday visit family or go to the family finca somewhere comfortable. What about reclaiming the country through travel? Take it back.
This issue of traveling beyond one’s comfort zone is of course generational and perhaps the younger generation in Colombia is changing this. My mother in law only thinks of travel as visiting her relatives and just mentioning to her, as I did, that my wife and I would be heading off to the Pacific, she mentioned that she would be praying to the Virgen del Rosario to protect us on our journey.
Only last week I was privileged enough to be invited to the launch of the brand Utria for this national park on the Pacific Coast equidistant between the towns of Bahia Solano and Nuqui in the department of Choco. This is an area very dear to me since I have traveled extensively in the region dating back to my days in an NGO in 2001.
As the talk was being given, I looked around in the small auditorium and saw travel personalities, bloggers, travel agencies, people involved in charity and a few others in attendance. It was a good turnout and a positively Bogotano experience in Rosales. We were enchanted by the young children dancing frenetically and I for one was captivated by the paradisiacal images projected overhead.
It was then, as the photos changed on the presentation and the sound effects were increased to give us the sense of being close to the Pacific Ocean with the sea breeze rattling palm fronds. Indeed, the balance had not been organized and what came out was more of a low growl. Behind me I heard the comment:
“That sounds like the military aircraft coming in on a bombing run.”
Let’s not ignore what is going on in Colombia, but, here we are celebrating a major step forward in sustainable development on the often misunderstood Pacific coast and some imbecilic rolo is wisecracking in this manner. It almost felt as if all of the positive work achieved that night had been undone. This, is an image problem that Colombia has.
So, as I grappled with this topic over the past couple of days I found myself trawling through some of my archives to see if there were other instances in which I have been positively offended or riled by a comment of this nature. Then it came to me, it was way back in my first week as a permanent resident in Colombia and had been flown out to the air force base in Cali on President Uribe’s jet – along with the president himself and the top brass heading for a Consejo Militar – to go and meet 300 recently surrendered FARC guerrillas.
I sat there listening to promises made by President Uribe to the newly demobilized that they and their families would be looked after and that jobs would be created to provide them with an alternative lifestyle to the one that they had been living. Somehow the subject arose all about a drop in criminal activities in Buenaventura.
“Of course crime is down in Buenaventura,” quipped the suit beside me. “All the criminals are here,” and he turned smiling at me. I recall just looking at my notes and not reacting.
Who was this person? I couldn’t put a name to him. Within a few weeks his name was never out of the press. It was Jorge Noguera, the one-time head of the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad or as we remember it fondly, the DAS.
Such prejudices are deeply ingrained in Colombian society and hard as we may try it is going to be a long battle in trying to overcome them.