Cartagena, Colombia

I spent a few days by myself in Cartagena on the coast of Colombia. Beautiful place but I think my expectations were too high going into it. I had heard such great things that I was preparing for paradise. Instead I got weather way too hot and tropical for my SF-fog-drenched self. Plus I'm not too into old colonial buildings — I've seen it a million times in Europe.

The beaches aren't bad — better than I had been told. The people are friendly. Coastal food a bit different than in Bogota. Very walkable.

Cartagena1 Cartagena2

The “Typical Mountain” Dish from Colombia

What young male wouldn't get excited at the below?
Food

Ex-FARC Musical Performance

One of the most inspiring nights in Colombia was a musical presentation from a bunch of de-mobilized FARC members. They left the jungle and re-integrated into society. They sang, in Spanish, about peace and love. Below the pic see the link to a Quicktime movie (30 secs).

Muisc Download movie P3310038

Travel Helps You Understand What You Don’t Like

Travel helps you understand what you don’t like.

Traveling in Alaska taught me that I get sea sick easily, and don’t like boats.

Traveling in India and western China taught me I do not like spicy food.

And now traveling in Cartagena, Colombia has taught me that I don’t like tropical weather. I kind of got this sense when I was on the beaches in Costa Rica, but now I’m sure of it.

I’m a child of the fog.

Random Thoughts from Colombia

– I am getting used to standing up when a powerful person enters a room. It is a pretty cool feeling for 20 people to be sitting around a large conference room, making small talk, and then for The Guy to enter, everyone stands at attention immediately, and he shakes each person’s hand.

– The drivers we’ve had open the door to talk to someone on the sidewalk, not the window. They never open the window. I think the windows are like permanently locked for security reasons.

– Airport security in Colombia and most third world countries is less a security process and more a “Welcome to the gate!” process. I take nothing out of my bag, I don’t remove my shoes, I walk through, they do a half second of metal-dector-to-my-body, and grab my bags and walk on.

– 1 in 5 women under 20 in Colombia have been pregnant. Many of these women want to be pregnant, according to surveys. Colombia has six times the pregnancies as Venezuela. Lack of education and Catholic church influence affects this number in a big way.

– There are 3x as many words in English than Spanish and this discrepancy is only growing. Most new tech or medical words (like “internet” or “email”) are in English with no Spanish translation.

– Colombians are remarkably optimistic. They’ve been this way for years – even when violence was high. One person told me a low point in morale for Colombians is still higher than high points of most other countries.

– Uribe is the counterweight to Chavez in the region. Lulu (Brazil) likes to play nice to everyone, he’s not standing up to Chavez.

– The weather report for Colombia has thunderstorms like every day. The same was true in Ecuador. Yet, such rain rarely materializes in either country. Bottom line: don’t trust weather reports for Colombia and Ecuador, especially when they have rain for 20 days in a row.

– The Apple Store in Bogota is called an “iStore”.

Bogota Day 2

We then had lunch with Frank Pearl who helps ex-guerilla members leave the shadow world and re-integrate into Colombian society. The government has essentially bought out more than 30,000 paramilitary guys over the past several years. They still have to serve justice, but their sentence gets reduced, and they receive job training and other assistance. Pearl has the very difficult job of balancing peace and justice: by demobilizing guerillas you further the peace process, but by shortening sentences or otherwise offering carrots to criminals, you are hurting the justice process for victims. Imagine if you were the mother of a son who was murdered by a FARC guerilla; how would you feel if the guerilla turned himself in and then received a light sentence and government aid to re-integrate into society?

Our last meeting of the trip was with the Minister of Defense (Secretary of Defense). Yet another extremely high level meeting with one of the most important power brokers in the country. The Minister started by showing a brief video about “ecoside” – drawing the connection between drug trafficking and environmental destruction. Colombia is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet…and the drug cartels / cocoa growers are demolishing thousands of acres of forest and plants and wildlife. I had not yet heard the environmental mandate to root out the drug lords, but it makes sense. It introduced a new source of guilt on American drug consumers: “The next time you snort a line of cocaine at an American party, think of the rainforest that got destroyed to make that possible. Think about the carbon footprint of drug users.”

U.S. aid to Plan Colombia only funds 5% of the effort but it’s a high quality 5% in terms of intelligence and resources. Still, people overestimate U.S. aid on that effort.

Bottom line with the defense minister: this past year has been one of incredible achievements for Colombian security forces. They’ve captured key guerrilla leaders, eliminated more huge swaths of cocoa fields, rescued captured hostages, and continued to restore confidence in the people that they will be safe.

Bogotá Meetings Day 1

After a few days in Medellín, our group flew to Bogotá — the nation’s capital — to meet more government and business leaders.

We enjoyed police escort our entire time in Bogota; we stayed in a fancy hotel; we ate at fancy restaurants; and our meetings took place in the type of buildings that require an index finger scan before entering. So I can’t say we saw “real life” Bogota — but from our admittedly high-end vantage point I would still say that the city seems cosmopolitan, wealthy, fast-paced, and everything that a capital city ought to be.

We spent most of the afternoon with four communications strategists / political consultants who all served at one point or another in the Colombian government. They rattled off a bunch of stats and points:

  • The physical size of Colombia is France, Spain, and Portugal put together!
  • When Uribe came to power, the country needed a fireman. That’s what Uribe was: someone who could put out fires.
  • 80% of the world’s kidnappings in the 1990s were in Colombia. That number has fallen drastically.
  • Uribe first term was different than Uribe second term, and if he gets a third term he will be different still.
  • If the country can amend the constitution this time for Uribe, why couldn’t an evil person do it in the future? What kind of precedent does it set?
  • The U.S. embargo with Cuba was designed to bring down Castro. It hasn’t. It’s failed.
  • In one election Paleo Escabar killed four of seven presidential candidates.
  • 80% of Colombians support a third Uribe term. What’s the difference between democracy and populism?
  • “There’s war, and we have a good general, why change generals in the middle of war?” – Uribe position

In the evening we met with former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria. Gaviria doesn’t support Uribe as a current president nor does he support a third Uribe term. He thinks that the security situation in Colombia under Uribe is better, but the narco-trafficking hasn’t changed much. He thinks there are still corruption issues. Like so many of the guys we met, Gavriria speaks passionately about security issues in Colombia with first-hand experience: several of his family members have been killed by guerillas or paramilitary groups.

The next day in Bogota, we met the head of the national police force. There are no local police departments — only one national police. Imagine the FBI doing local and national law enforcement.

The policy academy is a university — it issues bachelors degrees. All the police officers, then, are well educated and motivated.

He said that the police force will never be able to pay officers what the drug cartels can. So stopping corruption within the force is not just a matter of higher salaries; it’s a matter of values, leadership, etc.

He noted that the consumption and production line when it comes to the drug trade is blurring: used to be U.S. consumed, Colombia produced. Now U.S. is producing some drugs (meth etc) and Colombia has growing consumption population.

Colombia: Uribe, Clinton, Barrett, Reid, and Others

The Inter-American Development Bank is celebrating its 50th anniversary in Medellín so we’ve been able to piggyback on those festivities to meet some amazing people.

Our first meeting was with the former prime minister of Jamaica, James Patterson. He opened by expressing his “sincere disappointment” that no one from the Caribbean was represented in our group of 20. He then discussed the state of Jamaica, the drug trade, and his country’s precarious financial situation. Anti-American sentiment shimmered throughout.

At lunch we heard from the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, who’s now launching a presidential bid. A mathematician and university professor by training, he got involved in politics by giving voice to the everyday people on the street. He mentioned several times that he’s “walking around the country” meeting with everyday people, hearing their concerns, etc. A grassroots effort. He’s deservedly proud of Medellín’s turnaround from drug haven 20 years ago to a very safe, beautiful city today. Whether this record will be enough to win a nation-wide presidency remains to be seen; if Uribe successfully amends the constitution and runs for a third term, it’s Uribe all the way (he has 60% approval rating). If Uribe is out, Fajardo has a good chance.

Next we chatted with Craig Barret, chairman of the board at Intel, former CEO there, longtime employee. He began his remarks by saying “We old people have screwed the world up — it’s up to you to solve the problems we created.” Unfortunately he didn’t specify what problems, exactly. Most interesting tidbit: 75% of Intel revenue comes from outside the U.S. and all future growth will come from emerging markets.

Next was Michael Reid, Americas editor of The Economist, and author of The Forgotten Continent which I read and posted my notes. Reid was impressive. He’s spent 20+ years in the region and knows it inside and out. He wrote the editorial in the Economist calling for drug legalization. The political will to legalize drugs will only come when there’s universal understanding that the War on Drugs has been a failure. Reid also said it would be a “terrible mistake” for Uribe to amend the constitution and run for a third term.

The following day started with Agustín Carstens, Treasury Secretary for Mexico. Very smart dude. He said it’d be nice for Mexico’s economy to be less dependent on U.S., and for Mexican companies to have a more diversified customer base. But practically speaking, companies are going to continue to try to penetrate the world’s largest economy next door. As long as the Mexican-US trade relationship remains tight, Mexico’s economy will mirror America’s. He also said he expects more Americans to immigrate TO Mexico, as 10-15 million Americans retire in the next decade. Another fun fact: 50% of the fresh produce eaten in the U.S. in a six month period is grown in Mexico.

Our next meeting was with Robert Merton, Nobel prize winning economist at Harvard. He famously co-founded Long Term Capital Management, the disastrous hedge fund in the 1990’s that used complex statistical models to make trades. Merton struck me as an arrogant prick. His remarks were all over the place, and his overconfidence was shocking given the state of the global financial system.

Our meeting with Bill Clinton got cancelled but we were able to catch the end of his talk to the larger group. He had some very gracious things to say about Colombia’s stunning progress on the security front. He closed by saying Colombia should not give up on its neighbors — that it should talk to countries that disagree with them. This meant Venezuela, for sure, and maybe Ecuador too?

The day ended with the big meeting: President Uribe of Colombia. It was my first time meeting a head of state. He was impressive and thoughtful. We got to ask questions. We asked about his move to amend the constitution to allow for a third term and asked his reaction for observers who say such a move would weaken the “institutions” of Colombia. He pushed back and asked what specific institutions would weaken. He noted that Margaret Thatcher in England was in office for 14 years (or so). He said the security work in Colombia is not yet done. Most of all, he said he just wants to respond to the people’s will. If they want him for another term, he should have another term. On drugs he said the “US is not spending too much on it.” Ie, they’re spending the right amount, not too little.

Length of Meals in Latin America

Meals go on forever in Colombia. Each lunch and dinner has taken about two hours. Today, for example, we had a two hour breakfast, 2.5 hour lunch, and will have about a two hour dinner. That’s about seven hours of sitting in a restaurant for the day!

So much in this part of the world happens over food and drink.

Whereas in France and Spain and Europe in general I got frustrated with how long everything took (for waiters to arrive, food to come, etc) so far in Colombia I’ve enjoyed the leisurely pace.

I suppose if you’re eating at super nice restaurants with a large group of interesting people, a 3.5 hour dinner feels better than if you’re a solo backpacker on-the-go. 🙂

Colombia, Day 1

I've blogged about the annoyances of taxi drivers who hound you moments after stepping out of a third world airport. It creates a terrible first impression for visitors.

Imagine the sense of relief I felt, then, when I stepped outside of the airport in Medellín, Colombia this evening, prepared to not look any of the drivers in the eye (what I learned in Dalian, China is that if you give a driver eye contact he won't let you go), ready for an onslaught of "Taxi! Taxi!"…. and instead encountered a pleasant, quiet, area with taxi drivers patiently waiting for customers.

I love this city already!

When I arrived at my hotel the check-in process required my limited Spanish and the desk agent's limited English.

I gave him my American passport for the check-in. He studies it, opens it, looks at it. He asks me where I'm from. I say USA. His eyes widen with surprise, "Oh ok, USA."

I get my room key and ask if the restaurant is still open. He says no but he can order food from a local restaurant and have it brought up to my room. I say ok. He asks what I want. I ask if there's a menu. He says no. Silence. I'm not sure what to say – my food vocabularly in Spanish was escaping me. He asks if I like meat, I say yes, and he nods and says he'll take care of it.

30 mins later the desk agent and the restaurant dude show up at my room with two plates of thin steak and fries. It reminded me of the type of steak that's served as "casado" in Costa Rica.

He tells me I need to pay in pesos. I don't have pesos. Only credit card and dollars. Shit. I go online and check the currency conversion – 15,500 pesos into U.S. dollars. They stand there waiting for me and talking in Spanish as I figure out how much to give in dollars.

The whole meal comes out to US $6. I feel a little guilty at how cheap it is. I give the agent a $20 bill and say, "Give me back $11 and give the rest to the restaurant." They trust my conversion numbers. I get change back in pesos.

Tomorrow, I must go to an ATM and get the local currency. In the meantime, I feel lucky that the U.S. dollar still has street cred. 🙂