Colombia: Vacation Wonderland
It\’s all too common in Latin America, where the divide between rich and poor is usually very wide, to hear stark differences in outlook and attitudes at the table. When dining with the rich, the poor are often referred to with varying degrees of fear, condescension, and outright contempt. Unsurprisingly, conversations at the tables of the poor express an entirely predictable desire to see the heads of the rich paraded on stakes. Seldom do the two strata of society agree on anything beyond soccer.
So, imagine my surprise to hear–again and again–expressions of optimism, hope, good feelings, and a general belief that things were going pretty well–in Colombia. In Medellin, no less, not too long ago the murder capital of the world! In expensive restaurants frequented by the well to do, the kind of people whose cars are bulletproofed, who travel with armed drivers–and later– in what was the toughest, poorest barrio in the city, I heard the same thing. That the government seemed to be doing a pretty damn good job, that things were getting better and better, that the future looked bright–and that it was very good thing to be Colombian, and from Medellin in particular.
In a world where the bad guys seem to win with a relentless regularity, and where even the presumed good guys appear, usually, to be their own worst enemies, it\’s really gratifying to see things get so dramatically better somewhere–especially a place where at one time, it really and truly looked hopeless. It is inspiring, when you\’ve gotten used to the notion that some problems probably won\’t ever be fixed in your lifetime, to see some of the very worst kind of seemingly insurmountable problems so quickly and effectively improve. When you see a real change in the conditions and in the human hearts of a place where just a few short years ago, one neighbor couldn\’t walk twenty yards over without risking death from another, where drug cartels recruited their murderous young footsoldiers by the hundreds, where even the police feared to tread–it makes one hopeful again–about the whole world.
Colombia. Vacation Wonderland? Yes. Absolutely.
I can\’t think of another country where the No Reservations crew has been welcomed so enthusiastically everywhere we went. Absolutely everybody we met seemed delighted and proud that we\’d come to point our cameras at them. And we were allowed and enabled, I should point out, to point them any damn where we pleased. Someone less…forgiving in temperament, less zen-like than me might feel tempted to point out to some other tourist boards the wisdom of letting us go and do whatever we want–no matter how uncomfortable the official organs might be about some of our interests–compared to the result when officialdom tries to \”manage\” what we see and don\’t see. . As it turned out, it was the uncontrollable elements, the poor fishermen, the inner city market workers, the residents of the neighborhood in Medellin with the very worst reputation who did their country most proud.
What you might not know about Colombia is that it\’s beautiful. That the food is really good–with the same kind of fantastic mix of African, European and indigenous influences that makes Brazilian cuisine so interesting and vibrant. That they actually like Americans down there.
It was against this backdrop of bubbly goodwill, that I watched Ingrid Betancourt and her fellow hostages freed from captivity a couple of weeks ago–in what appears to be yet another in a series of spectacular and effective strikes against the FARC, a particularly unlovely bunch of hardcore commie/narco-terrorist kidnapper/\”guerillas\” who\’ve been getting knocked back on their heels in recent years.
On one hand, the government seems to be killing and capturing bad guys with skill and vigor. On the other hand, the local government in Medellin (for instance) has been improving transportation and social services for the working poor–and throwing an incredible FORTY percent of total budget at education. It looks and feels like a working combination.
As you watch the episode, the pride you see in the faces of the people I talk to–and hear in their voices–it\’s real.