Despite an incredible backlog of posts here for my life in Ireland, I’m interrupting the daily grind to bring news from Colombia, la tierra de realismo magico. I’ve been in Colombia almost a week, initially for a meeting and now just for fun. I’ve been in Cali, where I’ve had some incredible experiences and met great people, and in another day I’ll head to Bogota and then places beyond.
Colombia gets a bad rep. Everyone thinks it’s funny (or maybe they are being serious) to say “don’t get kidnapped” upon hearing I was traveling here. Years ago, that might have been some good advice (we’ve all seen “Romancing the Stone”). These days, though, unless you head into some really remote areas (generally to the south), you’ll be fairly safe, at least from terrorism. Regular crime (muggings, mostly) are a completely different matter.
Colombia’s approach to its insecurity issues has traditionally been a ramping up of security forces. Most of these forces had rampant corruption, and the war on the narcotraficantes and guerrillas often took innocent lives too (these wars were rather fluid, at times the government and the cartels fought together,at times, the left-wing groups fought with the cartels, etc). These days, police presence is still a major portion of national security (as are cameras), which has resulted in something of a police state. There is still rampant corruption in the policia and armed forces, but at municipal levels this is being ferreted out. The main cartels in Cali and Medellin have been mostly broken (but still exist), and paramilitary forces still operate in the south, but in a more decentralized way. On the whole, there is more trust in the police and government now then there had been before.
In Cali, homicides are still a bit high, but lower than the 90s and early 2000s. Most countries issue travel warnings to Cali and other parts of the South and West, but tourism is exploding in the North along the Caribbean coast. And Medellin, formerly well-known for the notorious Pablo Escobar, is now better known as the City of Eternal Spring and Botero.
And so, here I am, in the Capital of Salsa. Calenos never seem to sleep – just eat, drink, dance, and occasionally shoot each other. During the meeting, we had an incredlble amount of security around us – at the hotel, driving us around (and holding traffic – much like being in a presidential motorcade!), even to/from the airport. Others at the meeting (from other countries) commented on the feasibility of such presence (El Salvador I understand is similar), as well desirability. There seems to be a balance here though – the police are around as a show of force, but there is still great mobility amongst citizens. I feel mostly safe walking around the neighborhood I’m currently in, even if the police at the previous hotel (I switched locations after the meeting) checked the taxi I took to get here.
One more day here, and I plan to do something very mundane but exciting – visit the Zoo. it’s a nice walk through a historic area and downtown from my current location, and then a good few hours visiting Colombia’s best zoo – known for its indigenous wildlife (and the occasional Bengal tiger).