Colombia getting better all the time


How I spent my summer vacation.


I went to Colombia with Roselle and Jonas and Jonas’ brilliant, accomplished and beautiful wife, Andrea Zayas. Andrea is the daughter of Sam and Elena Zayas. Elena is Colombian so we were invited to go to one of the jewels of Colombia, Cartagena. It’s a beautiful, semi-small city — yet another experience in the pantheon of Roselle’s trips.


As many of us know, some of the best people living in the Berkshires are originally from Colombia and even though economics have pushed immigration in some cases, loyalty to Colombia is very strong among these folks.


Joining us on the trip was Andrea’s lovely 11-year-old daughter, Mila, Andrea’s mom, Elena, and her aunt, nicknamed Titi. They were staying away from the beautiful walled city in a lovely apartment (Miami style) on the ocean with a huge swimming pool but Roselle demanded that we stay in the heart of the walled city, which has some of the oldest fortifications in Latin America. These fortifications warded off pirates and armies that included such notables as Sir Francis Drake. You really have to see these battlements to understand just how formidable a defense these walls and cannons were for the city.


It was just a few short years ago that Colombia was a mess. There was something that resembled civil war between the FARC guerrillas and the government. Many people think that FARC no longer exists but it is still there and in the midst of negotiations with the Colombian government in Cuba. However while these negotiations are underway, the FARC continue some of its old ways, including bombings and selective kidnappings in some of the less visited areas of the country. The first thing any visitor notices is the incredible number of police. They travel in cars, two to a moped, in big groups and as singletons.


For two full days we visited a small hotel, Casa Verde in Santa Marta, a jewel of a small city that happens to be the very place where the single most important person in Latin American history, Simon Bolivar, died in the house of a friend. This place has a horticultural garden without peer, Colombians believe, in the world.


Juan Davila, the owner of the hotel is a repository of information about the history of Colombia. He has spent years in other countries like Canada and France, speaks excellent English and explained the national character of Colombia as I have never heard it explained. When you live in a country where you never knew when the next bomb would detonate or whether a friend or relative might be kidnapped, what you want is peace. Things are better now, but not perfect.


As we came into Santa Marta we saw terrible, terrible poverty — people living in shacks, some of which had no roofs or walls. On the other hand, the buildings along the coast are no different than the ones you see in Palm Beach and Miami. Here, however, you literally see the slums under the bulldozers as yet another gated (and I do mean gated) community of wealthy people springs up.


So Colombia is a mixed bag. No doubt it’s getting better all the time. The new president, Juan Manuel Santos, is committed to increased education. In the last administration he was the minister of defense, but he is considered a liberal. Many of the major drug czars are locked up in U.S. prisons, the result of complicated negotiations that proved that Colombia is anything but South Africa when it comes to forgive and forget. A lot of people lost their lives in the bad times leading up to now.


One last thing: not a whole lot of people in Colombia speak English, so before you go, you might want to brush up on your Spanish. Jonas and Andrea say that Colombians are among the nicest people in the world.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 8/16/14


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