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Impressions of Colombia

Bogota-Colombia1I’ve just spent an interesting week in Colombia, five days in Bogotá and a day and a half in Medellín and I’ve found it be a fascinating country.  Of course a week is not nearly enough time to get to know a city, let alone a country, but I thought I’d jot down some quick impressions I’ve had so far.

Bogotá is different from the other South American cities I’ve been to in that it closes early, by ten the entire city is practically shuttered.  I’m used to the siesta culture like in Peru or Argentina where everyone takes a nap until seven and then stays out at least until midnight so this has been an interesting change.

I think that part of it is that Bogotá, though much improved, is still unquestionably a dangerous place to be.  In fact, though the concert hall is only two blocks from our hotel, we have a professional driver to take us to and from our interviews and concerts which is a pretty new experience.  Our friends the Lincoln Trio told us that on a previous visit they had an armed escort.

We’re staying in the Candelaria neighborhood which is the old part of the city and where most of the tourist attractions are. The people we’ve met are all extremely nice and very patient with my not nearly fluent Spanish.  The owner of a restaurant even took the time to walk us through the menu telling us about the history and preparation of each Colombian dish, all the while speaking a slow Spanish so easy to understand that I nearly cried with gratitude.

It’s definitely a religious city. There are churches everywhere and Sunday is clearly a day of worship taken seriously by nearly everyone.  I wonder if this devotion has always been here or has been exacerbated in recent decades by the violence the people have had to endure.

Last night over two beers at the Bogota Beer Company I read all about the upcoming mayoral election in the newspaper.  It’s always interesting for a Chicagoan to read about corruption in other cities and remember that we didn’t invent it.   As far as I can tell from the paper there is a sense that there will always be corruption in government and the people are resigned to it but I also detected a note of optimism, like perhaps the new mayor may have to pretend to care about the people just long enough for things to improve marginally.

Our trip has been funded by the Banco de la Republica which is the foremost funder of culture in the country and they’re doing amazing things.  They’re bringing ensembles from the U.S. to Colombia for workshops, residencies and concerts, they’re fostering the creation of new works by composers and increasing access to musical education which is amazing.  I got a sense that the average citizen of Bogota was very proud of the work being done both to bring culture here and to promote Colombian culture abroad.

All in all it seems to me that both Bogota and Medellin are cities on the cusp of major change.  Some of the corruption and violence seem to be systemic and will probably never go away but the people seem to think that on the whole there is much improvement being made and there are signs of change everywhere you look.  I’ll be very interested to visit again in a few years.


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