Across the border Macondo was the first word that sprang to mind. Gabriel Garcia Marquez conjured a fictional place of magic in One Hundred Years of Solitude, of a time and place nobody could figure. But snaking through the vivid colours of southern Colombia, I could have sworn this was it.
Marquez´s place of birth is a village close to Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, also thought to have inspired Macondo. In his mind if this wasn´t exactly what he meant, in my mind it was so close as to be intoxicating, but both a revelation and let down, because it now seemed Macondo didn`t leap out, after all, straight from his imagination. The dramatic mountain shapes and pungent greens and browns were all real.
You wouldn`t have thought somewhere so close to equator could accommodate some of the most green and fertile landscape in south America. In places, at the road edge for example, the cut of the grass was as it is in rural Ireland. Cattle grazing in adjacent fields had an almost Irish manner about them, though the smooth brown hue of their outline was uniquely Colombian. There was no mistaking the cattle of Macondo.
You wonder crossing the one vast land mass how much really changes from country to country. But arriving in Colombia gives a lie to the idea of overlaping cultures. The contours immediately take a form particular to here and nowhere else. The blood turns first black and then Spanish. The people emit a warmth and charisma that often eludes you in Ecuador, Peru or Bolivia.
The lingering perception of Colombia as violent and dangerous is a little ridiculous because in general, it at least feels safer than most other places in south America. The free market western style economics it embraces, combined with its deep European heritage, means that as a westerner here you command a certain respect. They engage you and give you their trust. There is little of the reserved circumspection that you are treated to in indigenous Bolivia and Peru. Of course there are valid historical and cultural reasons for this. But it is more pleasant to be adorned than to be ignored.
Colombia finds itself flanked by left-wing regimes to the north, east and south which are all ambivalent towards its political and corporate affinity with the USA. But that is politics, and fundamentally Colombians are passionate, charismatic and generous of spirit. The perpetual civil war that helped forge its reputation is now confined to more remote rural areas thanks to a military purge that has claimed the lives of the innocent as well as FARC guerrillas. But it has meant most Colombians can now travel through most places without fear of kidnap. The price paid for adherence to Amrican economics, of course, is a wildly unbalanced class structure, with far too few in possession of far too much, and far too many in possession of nothing. But that is politics, which the people play a far too insufficient role in shaping. Anyway, in judging a people by their country´s politics you usually end up missing the point.
The buses here fly. They are a proper health hazard, and at least that much never changes from country to country. Nevertheless I rolled into Bogota in one piece, resolving to stay put for a bit.
That was three and a half weeks ago. For a start, I´ve always been partial to cities with overhanging hills, and on Bogota´s eastern edge you´ll find beautiful wooded mountains in themselves, from the top of which you can scan the city and its eight million residents. It is amazing stuff. The place has energy and colour, bold modern buildings knitted together with traditional colonial houses and cottages at the foot of Monserrate, where the city took root in the 1500s. It has a nightlife few places in south America can match, and the people, of course, almost always hold out a hand of friendship.
Bogota is contrast of cityscape, of culture and unfortunately, of social class and fortunes. But one thing which it does afford is opportunity. So as my trip winds down to a close, just as I prepare to leave I have been beckoned to stay. I´ll return to this magical place in three weeks and see where the opportunities take me. The expat contingent here is still minimal but quickly the outside world is realising: the perils in Colombia aint so great. But a great place it absolutely is. How long I´ll stay who knows, but right now it just seems to make sense.
Naturally, getting closer to a place doesn´t necessarily mean you get to understand it. That is the trick of travel. But at least you´ve earned the right to be ignorant.
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