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Arriving in Bogotá, and Brian

January 31, 2020

Well, we’re on our way to Colombia. Carol decided that she needed to make the trip a bit more challenging, so a little over a week ago, she fell on the ice and broke her wrist.. (Note her snappy blue cast.)

The flight from Chicago to Bogotá was quite easy. We flew nonstop to Panama, which took about five hours. The Panama airport is one huge shopping mall, in which, if you look very carefully, you can find some gates and airplanes. It’s actually sort of disgusting. The flight from Panama to Bogotá is a little over one hour.

Clearing immigration and customs in Bogotá was amazingly quick and easy. Our friend, Brian Schon, met us at the airport with a driver and we headed for our hotel, with Brian giving us some background history about Colombia. We are staying at a Four Seasons, but one with real character, rather than the typical, modern Four Seasons. Here is a flower arrangement that was in the lobby and below that is our dinner area. We had a really excellent dinner.

I need to tell you about Brian Schon, because he is responsible for this trip, in more ways than one.

I met Brian in 2009, when he was a Segal Fellow at Brandeis University, in the Eli J. and Phyllis N. Segal Citizen Leadership Program. The Program was named in memory of my close friend and Brandeis classmate, Eli Segal, and now also bears the name of his wife, Phyllis, as well, who was instrumental in forming the Program and was its chair until a few years ago, when Mora Segal, Eli and Phyllis’ daughter, took over. I served on the Advisory Board of the Program and was privileged to get to know some of the outstanding fellows, including Brian.

Brian was a Politics, Philosophy, and Legal Studies major at Brandeis and later got his MPP (Masters of Public Policy) and MBA from the Heller School at Brandeis. As a fellow he worked at Health Care for All in Boston working to help pass legislation to expand health care access in the state. This would become a central pillar of his graduate work and he spent time afterwards working to expand access to primary care in the United States by encouraging medical care trainees to enter the field.

 

Wanting to gain hands-on international experience, he joined the Peace Corps, and embarked on work in community and economic development in Ukraine. After his service (he was evacuated due to war about 14 months in), he decided that he needed to learn Spanish in order to truly accomplish his goals back home (both in work and in politics), and that having grown up in Arizona, it was something of a moral obligation. Upon landing for the first time in Medellín, he quickly realized that he was falling in love with Colombia, the people, the environment, and the energy and decided he wanted to stay.

 

Brian had an entrepreneurial spirit, but he also wanted to have a chance to help out the local developing economy and quickly realized that tourism was the fastest growing sector of the Colombian economy although, at the time, it was still very nascent. He met two people about the same age (an American and a Colombian) with similar backgrounds and interests and they embarked on a journey to harness tourism and environmentalism as catalysts for change.

 

Their results were Cannúa the country’s first sustainable, high-end ecolodge and True Colombia Travel, an innovative travel agency/operator that takes foreigners to new destinations working hand-in-hand with locals. Cannúa, although open only recently, has been instrumental in changing the perception and offer of ecotourism in Colombia and has already been featured in over 50 publications worldwide. It’s a leader in sustainable travel and is focused on permaculture and training and employing local rural residents. It is also the first hotel of its kind in the world built primarily out of compressed earth bricks, using the same soil from their property and the restaurant is world-class. True Colombia Travel is opening new and interesting destinations in the country and working closely with people whose stories are often not told. Along the way, Brian with his love for coffee, met Laura a Colombian doctor, in a local coffee shop. In June of 2019 they were married and in ironic fashion, Laura is currently studying in the United States to help bring the new medical field of culinary medicine to Colombia, while Brian is still in Colombia running the businesses. They visit each other as often as possible.

 

In 2016, I was traveling in Colombia with a photography group led by Nevada Weir and Adam Weintraub. Knowing Brian was down there, I connected the three via e-mail. Adam and Nevada went down early to do some additional scouting with Brian and Nevada, Adam, and Brian became very quick friends. (The photo of Brian below was taken on my 2016 trip.)That year Brian came to meet me and spend two days with the group as a local specialist. I went out to dinner one night with him and his (at the time) girlfriend Laura at a creative restaurant called El Cielo. The chef, Juan Manuel Barrientos has since become famous, opening restaurants in Bogotá, Miami, and recently Washington, D.C. and is constructing his own hotel in Medellín. In 2016, Brian, Laura and I ate dinner in his flagship restaurant, El Cielo, Medellín. The food is a modern and molecular gastronomic journey of Colombia, rescuing and re-using the exotic ingredients of Colombia and cooking them in amazing and creative dishes that tell a story about the country. The experience is always a tasting menu and includes getting your hands dirty while washing them, and then later guessing what you are eating. It is a very sensorial and non-traditional eating experience, and the food is delicious as well. I can’t wait to get back to El Cielo on I trip.

I have followed Brian’s career and when I read of the opening of his lodge in December, I thought that a visit would be a great way to escape Chicago for a week and a half this winter.  When Carol and I contacted Brian with the idea, he was very excited about it, and has meticulously planned every aspect of this trip for us.  So, he’s not only responsible for the idea of the trip, he’s responsible for the trip itself.

You will be hearing much more about Brian, beginning tomorrow when we start our trip in earnest.

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