Colombia—Background

January 30, 2020

We are off to Colombia tomorrow, so here’s the post in which you learn more about the country than you would ever want to know.

Colombia, with a population of approximately 47 million and a size about twice that of France, is the only country in South America with coastlines on both the North Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea as well as the country with the world’s second most biodiversity. Lying to the south of Panama, Colombia controls the land access between Central and South America. With Panama to the north, Colombia is surrounded by Venezuela to the east, Brazil to the southeast, and Ecuador and Peru to the south west. The country was named in honor of Christopher Columbus, following the Italian version of his name (Cristoforo Colombo). Although Columbus never actually set foot on the current Colombian territory, in his fourth voyage he visited Panama, which was part of Colombia until 1903.

Colombia was originally inhabited by numerous,indigenous cultures like the Muisca and the Tayrona. The area that now is Colombia was colonized by the Spanish when America was ‘discovered’ by Europeans. The process of colonization radically altered the social structures of the areas and through war and disease brought by the Spanish, the indigenous populations shrank dramatically in size and their numbers dwindle since then. The Spanish brought European settlers and African slaves, while most of the population in the colony was of mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry.

The country became independent from Spain in 1810. It was one of the five countries liberated by Simón Bolívar (the others being Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia). Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama then formed the first Republic of Colombia. Ecuador and Venezuela declared their independence from Colombia in 1830. Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903. The history of the country in the years to come following independence was marked by several civil wars. The legacy of these conflicts, together with troublesome social issues, early state repression against rural communities and peasants and world polarization caused by the Cold War culminated in a communist insurgent campaign by the FARC and the ELN to overthrow the Colombian Government.

A nearly five-decade-long conflict between government forces and antigovernment insurgent groups, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) heavily funded by the drug trade, escalated during the 1990s. More than 31,000 former paramilitaries had demobilized by the end of 2006 and the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia as a formal organization had ceased to function. In the wake of the paramilitary demobilization, emerging criminal groups arose, whose members include some former paramilitaries. The insurgents lack the military or popular support necessary to overthrow the government, but continue attacks against civilians. Large areas of the countryside are under guerrilla influence or are contested by security forces.

In the years following 2002 the safety has been improving throughout the country. In 2012 the government and the FARC started peace talks aiming at bringing the 50 year old Civil War to an end once and for all. The Colombian Government has stepped up efforts to reassert government control throughout the country, and now has a presence in every one of its administrative departments. Despite decades of internal conflict and drug related security challenges, Colombia maintains relatively strong democratic institutions characterized by peaceful, transparent elections and the protection of civil liberties. Colombia is currently in a process of recovery, and is creating an economy thriving and attractive to many national and international investors. Ending the conflict, high income inequalities and rebuilding itself from the legacy of war are some of the issues that confront the country.

Colombia is in the midst of a demographic transition resulting from steady declines in its fertility, mortality, and population growth rates. The birth rate has fallen from more than 6 children per woman in the 1960s to just above replacement level today as a result of increased literacy, family planning services, and urbanization. However, income inequality is among the worst in the world (fertile territory for Bernie Sanders in the unlikely event that he’s not elected president), and more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

Colombia experiences significant legal and illegal economic emigration and refugee flows. Large-scale labor emigration dates to the 1960s; Venezuela and the United States continue to be the main host countries. Colombia is the largest source of Latin American refugees in Latin America, nearly 400,000 of whom live primarily in Venezuela and Ecuador. Forced displacement remains prevalent because of violence among guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and Colombian security forces. Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations are disproportionately affected. A leading NGO estimates that 5.2 million people have been displaced since 1985, while the Colombian Government estimates 3.6 million since 2000.

Colombia’s consistently sound economic policies and aggressive promotion of free trade agreements in recent years have bolstered its ability to weather external shocks. Real GDP has grown more than 4% per year for the past four years, continuing almost a decade of strong economic performance. All three major ratings agencies have upgraded Colombia’s government debt to investment grade, which helped to attract record levels of investment in 2013 and 2014, mostly in the hydrocarbons sector. Colombia depends heavily on energy and mining exports, making it vulnerable to a drop in commodity prices. Colombia is the world’s fourth largest coal exporter and Latin America’s fourth largest oil producer. Economic development is stymied by inadequate infrastructure, inequality, poverty, narco-trafficking and an uncertain security situation. Moreover, the unemployment rate of 9.2% in 2014 is still one of Latin America’s highest. The SANTOS Administration’s foreign policy has focused on bolstering Colombia’s commercial ties and boosting investment at home.

Colombia is an illicit producer of coca, opium poppy, and cannabis; world’s leading coca cultivator with 83,000 hectares in coca cultivation in 2011, a 17% decrease over 2010, producing a potential of 195 mt of pure cocaine; the world’s largest producer of coca derivatives; supplies cocaine to nearly all of the US market and the great majority of other international drug markets; in 2012, aerial eradication dispensed herbicide to treat over 100,549 hectares combined with manual eradication of 30,486 hectares; a significant portion of narcotics proceeds are either laundered or invested in Colombia through the black market peso exchange; important supplier of heroin to the US market; opium poppy cultivation is estimated to have fallen to 1,100 hectares in 2009 while pure heroin production declined to 2.1 mt; most Colombian heroin is destined for the US market (2013)

So, let me know if you need any heroin, put in your order as a comment to this post (just kidding, all of you federal agencies monitoring this blog). I’m going to sign off now, and meet you in Bogata.  Sorry if this post bored you, but, hey, nobody told you had to read the whole damn thing.  From here on, it ought to get more interesting (I hope).

Here are a couple photos from my 2016 trip, taken at the carnival in Barranquilla. Since we are not going there, they bears no relationship at all to this trip. But they do add a bit of color to the blog.

Hasta luego.

ADDENDUM. I don’t want you to think that I just write these things and forget about them. I contacted my friend/travel agent Brian (about whom you will be hearing often), who lives in Colombia to ask for updates/corrections. While he thought that, in general, the description was “fantastic”, he had these comments, which I pass on to you now:

You may want to mention the Peace Deal that occurred in 2016 and brought an end to the FARC

– I’d have to look up stats but I don’t think Colombia is still the largest producer of the mentioned drugs

– You mention Santos as president but Ivan Duque, a disciple of former president Alvaro Uribe has been in power for around a year.

– I’d contest the following line: “Economic development is stymied by inadequate infrastructure, inequality, poverty, narco-trafficking and an uncertain security situation.” There has actually been massive investment in particular in infrastructure which is steadily and mightily receiving upgrades. Poverty and narco-trafficking has gone way down although it’s we suffer from one of the most massive income gaps in the world. However, the biggest issue is corruption. Although mostly at the local level, I believe I read last year that Colombia loses around 10% of it’s annual GDP to corruption and related actions

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.

Reflections. India 2019

We’re delayed taking off from London for reasons I can’t determine because I don’t hear shit, the pilot has a British accent and the sound system sucks. While I don’t love delays, I accept them as inevitable. What I don’t accept as inevitable is the pilot thanking us for our patience. That pisses me off. It’s a little like a guy socking you in the nose, bloodying it and thanking your nose for being there. Keep your thanks, Captain Gracious, and just get us to Chicago.

First, reflecting on the problems. Two difficulties, which probably could not have been prevented.

After our itineraries were set, the airlines canceled some fights, which necessitated stops we had not anticipated and lengthened the amount of time we spent in transit, I’m sure that our travel agents explored all options and came up with the best they could, but less transit time would have enhanced the trip experience.

The transit portions done by car were less stressful. We had very comfortable SUVs, air conditioned, with wifi and drinks and snacks, and we could stop when we wanted to. Flying just sucks everywhere. Flying Business Class certainly helps, but it doesn’t eliminate the crowded airports, long lines and flight delays. The BA planes were not comfortable.

Second, we were both sick, with nasty coughs and periodic sore throats. Carol’s cough is still pretty bad, but mine has improved quite a bit. Of course these coughs sap energy and just make getting around less pleasant. Yet, I’d say we soldiered through pretty damn well for an elderly couple who have noted that distances are longer than they used to be, the heat is hotter than in the past, tiredness sets in earlier in the day and steps are higher than usual and subtle obstacles meant to trip you up are hidden at random places along the way.

I made several good moves on this trip. Taking my iPhone 11 and leaving my Sony and lenses was a brilliant move. I almost never wished I had the Sony. The iPhone photos at first blush look quite fine to me, certainly completely adequate for the blog and, I think, enough good shots to merit working on them when I get home.

Packing lighter and doing laundry more frequently was wise. I could have packed even lighter. Shorts and short sleeve shirts were the ticket, and I could have bent more heavily in that direction..

Taking walking sticks was helpful at times. I’ll take them on our next trip and probably use them more. Complementing use of the sticks was simply being a lot more consciously careful of where I stepped. Falls, I think, are most often occasioned by hitting a single stone or by a slight, subtle change in level. Walking down stairs or a slope where there is no hand rail or other support is dangerous; I took it slowly. In general, I was simply more cautious of all of these dangers, and it paid off.

Well, enough old folks talk. What about the trip, overall, and it’s highlights? Overall, I’d say the trip was a solid A-. Shonali did a terrific job of planning a very diverse trip. We stayed in spectacular places, definitely the best overall accommodations we’ve ever had. And we had guides, all of whom were excellent to outstanding. Trip details were handled efficiently and seamlessly, without glitches.

People often ask us about the food. We are not foodies and don’t travel for that reason. I’d say the food was good, just fine, but not exceptional. Had we been interested in great food, we probably would have sought it out and found it more often than we did. Frankly, at the end of a long day, a good meal at our hotel always seemed like the best option, rather than schlepping out to a restaurant.

As always, it was little personal, unexpected or truly different experiences that are the most interesting and memorable for us. Celebrating Diwali with a family in Jodhpur, an unscheduled stop at a cocoon market, visiting Bullet Baba’s temple, watching the shoemaker in Jodhpur, walking with the shepherd in Jawai and going to a village there, stopping by for opium tea, watching the master craftsman making inlaid wood pieces that you’d swear were paintings, running into the daughter of a couple who hosted us for lunch at a small guest house and finding that she’d studied law in England, too, and had lived in Japan, where we’re traveling next April, learning and seeing the intricacies of silk making by walking round the factory, being dazzled by the miniature painting at the Jodhpur fort museum and then seeing, hearing about and purchasing one of those pieces from Rohit in Delhi. The purchase seemed not like a random impulse purchase, but a follow through on something that had attracted our interest in Jodhpur. Carol enjoyed shopping for vegetables and then seeing lunch prepared.

Walking through villages, seeing people work at and explain their crafts (especially when they are not trying to sell them to you) and just seeing life and observing how different it is from what we experience; these are things we love. Of course, palaces and forts, and some temples, are must-sees. We enjoy those, but, at the end of the day, I hardly remember which is which and rarely who built them and when they were built. That said, seeing the Mysore Palace lit at night is something that certainly will remain in memory, (On the other hand, we feel we’ve pretty much done markets around the world. But, as soon as you say that, you come up with the terrific flower market, seen from above in Bangalore, or the unusual and interesting cocoon market.)

I’ve raved about the hotels we stayed at, which is a bit embarrassing. But not really. Certainly the luxury is noteworthy (and, okay, appealing). But really it’s more than that. These were actually the places that kings and maharajas lived, and a good deal of what they lived with surrounds you. Haven’t you ever sorta wanted to be a maharaja? I have.

I’ve also raved about our guides. Any traveler knows how important your guide is to your overall experience. Shonali knows that we are quite fussy about our guides, and makes sure that the guides she sets us up with are top drawer in their English, in their knowledge and in their ability to “get” what their clients are really after.

I’d have to say that two of the places we visited were extraordinary. First, Hampi for its wonderful archeological significance and striking beauty. And, second, Jawai, for its combination of leopards, shepherds, village people and magnificent, rugged landscape and beautiful sunset. And, if you can’t live in a palace, a luxury tent is a pretty good fallback.

I typically slip a photo or two into my last post, so that you won’t feel cheated. I had quite a number of candidates for this trip, but settled on two, both of Carol and me, first in our carriage pulling up to our palace in Hyderabad and second in the landscape of Jawai.These symbolize two of the wonderfully diverse experiences we had. They also show what a pleasure and privilege it is to still be able to share these adventures together, more than fifty-four years after our first major trip together, our honeymoon. I sincerely hope that some of you reading this can share those kinds of experiences with somebody who means so much to you.

Delhi and Punam

November 1

A slight digression. For those of you who have wondered what I think is the greatest invention ever made by man, I want to put your anxiety to rest. It’s the shower. I mean, the wheel was good, too, I suppose, but the shower was shear genius. I was reminded of that this morning, showering at the Imperial.

Moving on, now, with the day, we breakfasted at the hotel and then met the real reason we came to Delhi, Punam Ghandi. Punam (she correctly predicted that we’d never forget her name if we thought of “shayna Punam”) is the fabulous guide we fell in love with on our first trip to India, thirteen years ago, and saw again when we went to the South of India. She’s a great conversationalist on any topic, exceedingly honest and extremely knowledgeable, to boot. She’s become more of a friend than a guide, and we just wanted to hang out with her.

And that’s what we did. Carol still has a pretty bad cough and was not anxious to spend time outside, because of the poor air quality (and the heat did not seem attractive, either). Especially being the last day of our trip we wanted to take it easy. When we told her we’d enjoy seeing some art, she suggested that we see if Rohit Kaicker was around and, if so, go over to his gallery, located in his home, to see his fabulous collection and listen to his expertise about the art he collects.

Rohit was home, so we went over to his gallery and spent an hour and a half looking at and talking with him about his outstanding collection, which he says is a hobby that he picked up from his father. Clearly, this is much more than what we would consider a hobby, as he has rooms full of exquisite work.

You may recall that Carol and I were both blown away by the miniatures we saw in the palace museum at Jodhpur. That was the kind of work Rohit collects, a good deal of which is of a quality comparable to the museum work. We were able to examine the minute squirrel tail brush work on these pieces with a magnifying glass to appreciate the detailed work. We wound up buying an outstanding piece (more than twice the price of some very nice other pieces he showed us) and I look forward getting it home, framed and hung. It will make a great addition to our eclectic collection. We can be confident of its quality, not only because Rohit told us so (Punam had said about Robit before we went to see him that he was “too honest”), but because when we walked through his home, one of the pieces hung in his private collection was part of the same series as the one we purchased,

From Rohit’s house we drove to the National Modern Art Museum and walked through the collection. While there were some pieces we liked, for the most part we were not impressed. We drove by an area in which rather amusing paintings had been done on buildings that were not of the quality of the graffiti art I’d seen in Joburg in April, but fun to see.

We then went to lunch with Punam at Basil and Thyme, a small and unpretentious restaurant with excellent food. From there we went to another area to do some last-minute, small shopping, which was only partially successful. As it was already almost 4PM, we decided to declare victory and head back to the hotel, where we napped, had dinner, packed and prepared for the midnight pick-up for our 3:20AM departure for home, via London.

I’m posting this from the Business Class Lounge in London. Final post will be a reflection on the trip. If you’re still with us, you might as well stick around and find out whether we had a good time.

Bullet Baba and the Road to Delhi

October 31

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, how many of you know the story of Bullet Baba? Okay, then, listen up.

On Dec 2, 1991, a young man named Om Banna was riding his motorcycle on the road 33 miles from Jodhpur when he lost control, hit a tree and was killed. The bike was taken to the police station, but the next morning, it appeared mysteriously again at the accident site. It was taken back to the police station several times, chained and fuel removed, but each time it reappeared at the accident site. To commemorate this miracle, a temple was built at the accident site and each day hundreds of people come to pray, bring offerings, touch the bike which is housed there and take photos of strange people like us with their phones. This, it is thought, will assure the devotees of safe passage in their journeys. Here was the scene today.So, if you’ve been to India, seen the Taj, but missed Bullet Baba, that’s a damn shame. We saw it only because our driver from Jawai to the Jodhpur airport, Manu, knew about it and asked whether we’d like to stop. Of course, we would. One of the things I love about India is that there are thousands of tales of Bullet Babas to be found, each of them ardently believed and deeply meaningful to the faithful.

After a relaxed breakfast outside at our camp, we ride some 31/2 hours to Jodhpur, are met at the airport and spend a very long time standing in line to clear security for our flight to Delhi. Actually, I spend a very long time in line. Carol whizzes right through, because, in payback for the lines at restrooms, they’ve devised a system with a separate line for women. Carol cleared security a good 35 minutes before I did.

We’re met at the Delhi airport and driven an hour to our hotel, one of my all time favorites, The Imperial, arriving around 6PM. Air quality is very poor. Delhi is reputed to have the worst pollution of any major city in the world. Our guide says that it’s because of Diwali, all the firecrackers, but that sounds fishy to us. The Imperial is a decadent colonial-era hotel that has been upgrade with modern amenities. Just my type a place.

We go down to one of the four restaurants for dinner, then relax and retire.