Colombia is quickly slipping from my memory.
It has been six weeks since I was there. And, before the whole trip retires with the memory of the names of my second grade classmates to "the southern hemisphere of the brain,/ to a little fishing village where there are no phones" (as Billie Collins would have it), I will try to capture a few vignettes for you.
If you followed the adventures of the three of us (my cousin Dan, his wife Patty, and me) in April, you already know how much I appreciated the place. Enough so that I will return, and I strongly recommend that you consider a visit yourself.
I have a blogger friend, who is a rather tough cookie to please. Each of her visits there have entranced her.
Here is my plan. I sifted through my photographs and came up with eight categories I would like to share with you:
- Simón Bolívar
- street scenes
Whether I write eight separate essays or combine a couple, we shall see. Consider yourself as my therapist as I give you a stream of consciousness trek through Colombia -- solely from my perspective.
Let's start with Simón Bolívar -- because that is where independent Colombia began.
Antonio, my pool man asked me yesterday how similar Colombia and Mexico are. He was surprised when I told him there are some similarities, but they are quite distinct cultures.
Our exchange reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Clear and Present Danger. Agent Murray asks Jack Ryan what the food is like in Colombia. "It's like Mexican food."
Well, Jack was wrong. It isn't. And Colombia is very different than Mexico. One reason is its history.
Colombia has the honor of having the first stable Spanish settlement on the continent of South America. That was in 1510.
When the Spanish arrived, there were multiple Indian tribes in the area, some had been there as early as 12,000 BC. Unlike most of the Indian tribes in Mexico, the tribes in Colombia honored gold. It is from Colombia that the legend of El Dorado ("the city of gold") arises. And that was to be the undoing of the Indians.
The Spanish who came to Colombia were transfixed with acquiring wealth -- especially, gold. The Spanish used several weapons to capture territory where gold might be mined. The primary was turning tribe against tribe.
But the most effective was an ally that the Spanish did not even know they were utilizing -- smallpox. Just like Mexico and the Caribbean, 90% of the Indian population died from either warfare or a disease against which they had no natural immunity.
With depopulation, the Spanish crown sold the deserted land to colonists, who created large farms and ranches.
Then known as New Granada, Colombia was ruled from Peru by the Spanish Viceroy. Colombians had many of the same grievances that initiated the Mexican move for independence. After several failed rebellions, Simón Bolívar declared independence in 1819, and was finally successful in liberating Colombia from Spanish rule in 1822.
Colombia consisted of the territory of what we now know as Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Ecuador and Venezuela broke off in 1830. And Panama gained its independence in 1903 when, as Senator S.I. Hayakawa drolly put it: "We stole it fair and square."
It is hard to overstate Bolívar's importance to Colombians. He was the first president of the republic. But, even though Americans honor Washington for his similar role, we do not venerate Bolívar in the same way.
One reason may be because he was a visionary. He dreamed of uniting the original territory of Colombia with Peru and Bolivia to create a Confederation of the Andes that would be an example to the world of a successful republic. That dream, of course, collapsed with the Balkanization of Colombia.
What followed his death was a series of civil wars that lasted into the 20th century -- usually pitting politicians who supported Bolívar's notion of centralized power opposing those who favored local control.
Maybe that is another reason for the Bolívar nostalgia. Colombians long for the long-gone stability that he brought following the war with Spain. To modern Colombians who are doing their best to unwrap themselves from the terrorism of FARC, that past is something to yearn for.
Of course, the Bolívar myth can just as easily be misused -- as the region discovered with Hugo Chávez's comic opera "Bolivarian socialism" that has reduced Venezuela from being one if South America's wealthiest nation to a country that now looks as if it wants to vie with Haiti in the economic basket case list.
Even Chávez, who is despised by the Colombians with whom I talked, cannot tarnish Bolívar's reputation in Colombia.
Those photographs peppered throughout this essay? They are all statues of Colombia's liberator.
A dream that Colombians are now living.