Reflections on Colombia

February 18.  

February 18. Breakfast in the hotel, followed by a bit of repacking. Half of our group left for the airport at 5:15AM, but I have a civilized 11AM departure for a 2PM flight. So I take a last walk in Bogatá, sit at a cafe and have a couple decaf cappuccinos and take a dozen or so non-memorable photos of folks passing by. 


Transfer to the airport and check-in go smoothly, except, ironically, the bug spray that I bought to protect against Zika that I did not use once, gets confiscated. Go figure. My driver spoke no English, so it was a last opportunity to speak Spanish. For reasons that are unclear to me, I have access to the LAN (American’s partner airline) VIP lounge. I’m not complaining, as it’s comfortable, and there’s lunch. And, even better, turns out I’m upgraded for the flight to,Miami.

Now, for some reflections on the trip.

It was a very good trip.  

Four experiences stand out for me.

First, Carnaval was a spectacle, to be sure. Elements of it were reminiscent of Fourth of July parades in the States. But there was a difference, primarily in the crowds, who were infused with great spirit and energy, and were far more than just spectators. As an aside, Carnaval, and, indeed, the entire trip, gave me some respite from the even more bizarre carnival going on in the US political campaigns. With the availability of news through the Internet, though, I certainly did not escape the campaign altogether, but it definitely was subdued by distance.

Second. At the other end of the spectrum from Carnaval, the tiny island community of Islote Santa Cruz was unique, and experiencing it twice was a treat.

Third, was simply walking through many different neighborhoods, talking both verbally and non-verbally to people and photographing whatever caught my eye. Though this may seem unexceptional, I find it immensely enjoyable, not only the people, but photographing the graffiti, and colorful windows and doors. I wish I’d taken some time to brush up on my Spanish before the trip, as greater facility with the language would have made the neighborhood visits even more enjoyable.

Fourth, was my connections to people I knew from the States, Brian (and his girlfriend, Laura, who I had not known) in Medellin and the Christies in Bogotá. I suppose it’s a bit odd to be considering meeting folks you know as a highlight of travel, but being able to connect like that in a foreign country has a special appeal. An unexpected pleasure of traveling. As an aside, the dinner I had with Brian and Laura at El Cielo was truly memorable. Every once in a while, a meal or a hotel rises to the level of significance to the trip, as a whole. Dinner at El Cielo is an example.

Certainly there were other things I enjoyed: the Punta Faro resort for a nice change of pace, the afternoon learning about the Wayuu culture and even some of the shopping. A few things went wrong: lost luggage, excessive heat, longer than planned travel and a rather defective boat ride. But those sorts of things always happen, and become part of the fabric of the trip.

As usual, Nevada ran a very good trip. She is fun and flexible, allowing people to make their own choices and go their own ways. And, though this is not essentially a teaching trip, she is available as a resource to everyone.

The more photography I do, the more I realize how much I do not know, and probably never will. A good part of this is my own choice, as I’m unwilling to devote the time and effort it would take to make great leaps forward. Yet, I continue to learn some, and am generally content with the balance between learning and not having to make the effort to master the technology or to invest in, and schlep, a lot more equipment. Some of the photographic settings were very challenging–tight quarters, low light, movement, contrasty light, use of flash, bright sunlight–and I struggled, often unsuccessfully, in dealing with them. And I’d make some basic mistakes, such as changing settings to deal with a particular situation and then forgetting to change them back when the setting changed.  

Still, there almost certainly are a few images worth saving in the thousands I took. And that’s enough to keep me going. A bit like sinking a putt on the 18th green, after a mediocre round. Basically, I operate on the principle that given an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters, they’d produce all of Shakespeare. I regard myself as one of the monkeys. But I’m hoping that I’ll make at least a little effort between now and my next trip to become a more accurate typing monkey.

The group was basically a good one. As always, there are some I liked better than others, but then, hard as it may be for you to believe, I’m probably in the lesser-liked grouping of some of the others on the trip. It has not seemed necessary, or right, to comment particularly on the group members in the blog.

I’m acutely aware that the ability to continue to take this kind of trip is not guaranteed, so I intend to try to take them frequently, as long as I can. This trip was not particularly trying, except for the heat along the coast. Still, I’m not as nimble jumping on and off of buses or as able, or willing, to schlep large luggage as I once was.

Taking you all along with me was a great pleasure, and I thank all of you who took the time to read this blog, and especially those who commented, either by posting or email. Those comments are an inspiration to me to keep on writing, and posting.

A lovely bit of symmetry and coincidence to conclude. Some of you may recall my pre-trip post in which I spoke about the American artist who lives in Turkey, and my fascination with how different our lives have turned out. I have not been in touch with her these last two and a half weeks and, as she seems to have an almost religious aversion to blogs, she has not followed the trip. As I was packing this morning for my return home, I got a wonderful email from her talking about the arrival of Spring, the pink blossoms on prunus trees, chicks that will soon be hatching, a water supply that is likely to last only until August, because of the drought, her chimney collapsing and the arrival of the first grasshopper of the horde that she’ll need to fight off. I was reminded that her world is probably more foreign to me than the one I’ve inhabited these past couple weeks. And it’s so good, through the miracles of technology, to be able to share her world with her.

Carol and my next trip, in early May, is going to be a very special one, as you’ll find out soon. It will be good to travel with Carol again, as I missed her on this trip. (But my greater desire to travel and focus on photography makes an occasional trip alone a pretty good compromise for us.) Until May, then, hasta luego.

A Day in Bogotá

February 17 
For our last day of the trip, we enter the center of the historic capital (population about nine million), accompanied by a terrific, irreverent, and very informative guide, Veronica, who makes both the history (particularly that of the indigenous people), and the current political situation come alive. It’s too bad that we did not have this at the start of the trip.

   We head over to the colorful Candelaria neighborhood to see the formal and stately capital buildings intertwined with contemporary commercial structures. More interesting, though, are the narrow streets, with spectacular graffiti (state-sponsored) and colorful windows and doors, which make iconic backdrops to the distant mountains. I am fascinated by this, and so will include far too many examples. 








We also encounter various street and church scenes, including guards at the presidential residence.

We spend part of the day enjoying one of Bogota’s famous museums: The Botero Museum, which houses both Botero’s paintings and his personsl excellent and broad collection of 19th and 20th century European paintings.We also visit the spectacular Museo de Oro, which has the most elaborate collection of Pre-Colombian gold objects in the world, and sits in a modern building in the center of the city.  The museum required far more time than we had to do it justice.  Our group does considerable damage in the beautiful museum gift shop.

After a long and interesting day, we head back to the hotel to relax, shower, pack, blog, etc.  At six, we gather for wine in a room Nevada has reserved.  I deliver the humorous blog that I’ve been keeping about things that have happened on the trip, skewering everyone in the group.  The blog reading is very well received.

 After the reading, we  walk to our farewell dinner at the famous Casa restaurant, where we have a terrific dinner, many toasts and fond farewells.

To the Capital

February 16

Prior to our flight out, we breakfast at the hotel, then I take a walk alone around Riohacho for an hour or so, both the waterfront and a part of the town, gathering up some last Caribbean sun prior to our trip to the Andies. I like walls, as you can see below. 

 Then we’re off to the airport for our 12:35 PM flight to Bogota, arriving at 2pm, and transferring to Hotel B3 (which sounds like the first tile in a bingo game).  At the airport, Nevada takes this photo of me in my Colombian hat (a gift to all of us from the textile lady we bought things yesterday, suggesting that we paid way too much for the textiles).  She says I look rakish in the hat, and poses me. 

But she says that when the front brim flips up, as it does from time to time, I look dorky, proving that the line between rakish and dorky is precariously slim.

Bogotá is ar 8000 feet, and so blissfully cool, high of about 70 degrees going down to the low 50s tonight, a welcome respite from the heat of the coast.  Traffic is heavy, as it’s been most everywhere we’ve been, so it takes an hour, rather than twenty minutes to get there.  Check in; nice room.

In a stroke of extreme good luck, I discovered prior to our trip that my good friends John and Peggy Christie from DC were going to be in Colombia visiting their son, Than. I had not seen John and Peggy for quite a number of years, despite the fact that my daughter, Jodi, lives in DC. However, we were able to arrange a rendezvous in Bogotá. Go figure. Than has been working in Columbia for almost twenty years with USAID and other agencies. 

I had set aside the afternoon and evening to be with the Christies.  John comes over to the hotel, and we spent an hour and a half or more walking through a park near my hotel and talking, and stopping to see a hot soccer game. 


We then walk over to Than’s apartment, where Peggy has been sitting with their adorable 7-month old grandson, Parmo.  Around six or do Than and Danielle (who also works with the State Department come home, and we have a long and detailed discussion about Than’s work in trying to facilitate a successful,transition, should the peace agreement being negotiated in Havana come to fruition.  I can’t begin to recount all the complicated ins and outs, but it’s fascinating to listen.

John, Peggy, Than and John and Peggy’s 15-year old granddaughter, Larkin, go for an excellent dinner at a restaurant called Brasserie (Danielle stays home with Parmo).  Dinner affords a great opportunity to catch up on Christie family goings on, which are always very interesting.  Here’s a photo of Danielle and Parmo, and another of our group at dinner. 

The afternoon and evening with the Christies is a special treat for me.

Rancheria and Riohacha

February 15
After breakfast, we spend a little time walking around Santa Marta, which is very much more alive this Monday morning than it had been yesterday. 

We set off along a good highway towards Riohacha, about a three and a half hour drive. PArid, desert-like conditions on our horizon; vast goatherds and Rancherias/farmsteads mark this remote and little-visited area. We visit a traditional Rancheria of the Wayuu culture, meet a family, eat a traditional (pretty awful) meal. We learn a good deal about this old, matriarchical society and the customs and traditions of the 20 families and over 200 people who inhabit this rancherias. Afterwards we watch a dance by some young locals and some of us are enticed to participate. We buy some textiles direct from the locals (we’d already stopped by the roadside at another spot to buy textiles, before arriving here). 

On our way to Hotel Taroa, we stop to visit Fanny Iguarán and her small shop in her house, catering to women’s traditional weaving techniques. She represents 72 weavers in the area, and the quality of her wares far exceeds that we’ve seen before. Fanny does very well selling to the group, but we’re pleased to support her efforts.

In the afternoon we drive to Riohacha and our very good Hotel Taroa and clean up before dinner. I pass on a walk on the malecón, by the beach.

Dinner is at a restaurant down the block from the hotel, after which most of us retreat to the very pleasantly cool rooftop bar of the hotel, before retiring.


Santa Marta

February 14
We depart after breakfast and drive four hours on a good highway to Santa Marta.  After checking into our hotel and eating lunch at a restaurant down the block, we depart at 3PM for an afternoon tour of the center and a look at evening’s glow on the Coast. 

Our guide, Diva, was very good; knew her stuff and very personable.  Perhaps the most interesting part was a lengthy discussion of the politics of Colombia in the past twenty years or so, in which the crooked government has been making deals with drug cartels and the paramilitary.  Diva is skeptical as to whether current peace talks will improve anything, but she remains a fiercely loyal Colombian, despite personal experiences that she and her family has had.  The discussion gives one a clear sense of how different the problems Colombia faces from those we face in the U.S. 

 This city was the first colonized place in South America in the 16th century. Since then, it has participated in the slave trade from Africa, was terrorized by pirates for many years, fell from prominence and is undergoing a revitalization plan, as nicer boutique hotels and restaurants start moving in. The first church in the Americas, a beautiful waterfront, quaint narrow and colorful streets and friendly locals make it a fine place to absorb the Caribbean spirit in a place that is far less known and less commercialized than Cartagena.  Sunday is a very quiet time, except near the beach, which is a bustle of activity. 

Rich, Barbara and I all around together, they do a bit of shopping and we stop for a drink, before returning to our hotel to clean up.  

The group eats well at a restaurant close to our hotel, the Casa del Piano, located a few blocks from the bay.