Stepping off the plane in Cartagena I immediately felt a sense of relief. After four challenging weeks in the Andes of Bolivia and Peru, battling against the thin air and fluctuating temperatures, I was finally enjoying warm, breathable air. It was July 2006 and I had just embarked on the final leg of my tour of South America, leaving my friends behind in Lima. Colombia had always fascinated me. Growing up in London I got to meet all kinds of interesting people from all corners of the world. The Colombians were amongst the warmest, happiest and friendliest you’d hope to come across. However, my knowledge of the country’s history and social issues was elementary at best. It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Mark Bowden’s unfortunately-named “Killing Pablo” in 2003 that both my insight and curiosity began to develop. Perhaps it was this curiosity and thirst for adventure that led a 27 year-old me to break from the group and explore this fascinating yet little-understood country. A decision that would change the course my life would take.
As much as Cartagena charmed me it was Medellin, the city of eternal spring, that stole my heart. From the first moment I landed I felt an indescribable energy in the air, as if I had stumbled upon a well kept secret, a feeling reinforced through the people I had the pleasure of meeting over the days and, unknown to me at the time, years to follow. The natives of the Antioquia region to which Medellin is the capital are called paisas. They are known for their great hospitality, traditional family values and high spirits. You are greeted with a genuine smile wherever you go and the politeness of the people throughout the region is remarkable. The paisas are also said to be the most entrepreneurial and amongst the hardest working of all Colombians. The city has a certain buzz to it, modern yet traditional at the same time. On one side of the valley you’ll find tall skyscrapers housing multinationals and cocktail bars alike, on the other a family horseback riding on weekends. The contrast is intriguing. This is also true of the social inequality that is apparent, an unfortunate outcome of the civil war that has forced millions of citizens to abandon their countryside homes and flee to the larger cities. However its true to say that Medellin has gone further than others to address the problems. Libraries have been built in the poorest neighbourhoods, cable cars and escalators that reach far into the hills of the city so as to improve the quality of life of the less fortunate. This can also be seen in the attitude of the people, who carry with them an overwhelming sense of reciprocity. Life is regarded somewhat as a privilege rather than one’s right. The people are grateful for their fortunes, always thanking a higher force, knowing that tomorrow everything could change. This instills a positive atmosphere in society where displays of individualism and egoism are much rarer than in some parts of the western world. Then there is the fundamental belief that tomorrow things will be better, a hope that drives the people forward, “salir adelante” as they say here.
This is not only true in Medellin. The hope for a better tomorrow is seen all over the country to differing degrees. As soon as halloween ends, Christmas begins. Celebration fireworks are seen and heard as early as mid-November in the build up to the 1st of December. A month long Xmas celebration then sweeps through the nation. The music changes and so does the food, even though there are no seasons as such to mark a stark change in the climate. The difference is in the mentality. Music, dancing, eating and drinking bring to an end a year of hopes and dreams that, even if unfulfilled, are simply passed on to the next. But the celebrations do not end with the New Year. As well as having 18 public holidays, more than any other country in the world, Colombia has more days of festivals than there are days in a year. As well as placing great importance in celebrating occasions such as Mother’s day and Father’s day, there are also days to honour everyone’s purpose in society. There’s the day of the musician, the day of the teacher, the day of the photographer, the day of the international businessman and even the day of the secretary, a day on which it is particularly difficult to get a restaurant reservation. It is perhaps no wonder that Colombians are constantly ranked amongst the happiest people in the world.
International fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez often distinguish his writing style as magical realism. They describe their admiration for how he’s able to create this mystical world with intertwining stories of never-ending family trees, relentless love, untold tragedy, witchcraft, music, and somewhat unfortunate decision making. A world that seems so impossible that can only be described a surreal. This is because most of them have never visited Colombia. I believe Garcia Marquez had far less imagining to do. You only have to travel to the country and mingle with the locals, hear their stories, listen to the music and you will understand what Mr. Marquez was referring to. Colombia is a somewhat magical land partly stuck in time, in a good time, and I only hope that more people can get to know it like we have before the overwhelming tides of mass tourism and globalisation turn it into something different.
SUBSCRIBE TO AMAKUNA´S BLOG VIA EMAIL
Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts via email.